The Journal of Politics


Political Beliefs, Policy Interpretations, and Political Persuasion

Richard R. Laua1, Richard A. Smitha2 and Susan T. Fiskea3

a1 Rutgers University

a2 Carnegie Mellon University

a3 University of Massachusetts at Amherst


A central requirement for explaining many political outcomes is an understanding of how advocates manipulate the preferences of voters on various policy proposals. A major tactic by which the advocates of a policy proposal attempt to influence the preferences of voters is the presentation of “interpretations” about the various consequences of the policy proposal. Despite the central role of interpretations in political manipulations, little is known about when and why a particular interpretation will be effective. We argue that the effectiveness of different interpretations depends significantly on the political beliefs and schemata of voters and on the chronic cognitive accessibility of the interpretations, but only in certain information environments. We develop three hypotheses and devise two experiments to investigate them. In each experiment, registered voters read interpretations of policy proposals and then evaluated the proposals. The interpretations were drawn from the actual public debate on four public policy issues. The results of the experiments were consistent with the hypotheses. The implications of these results for electoral decision making are discussed. The potential applicability of the results to elite decision making, especially in legislative settings, is also explored.

(Accepted May 20 1990)

(Received September 24 1990)

Richard R. Lau is an associate professor of political science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903.

Richard A. Smith is an associate professor of political science, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890.

Susan T. Fiske is a professor of psychology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003.