Priming Patriots: Social Identity Processes and the Dynamics of Public Support for War

Scott Althaus, Kevin Coe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Contemporary theories of opinion dynamics - exemplified by Zaller's "receive-accept-sample" model - tend to assume that attitude change should occur only following exposure to new, attitude-relevant information. Within this prevailing view, the expected direction and magnitude of opinion change is largely a function of the tone and content of the new information to which one is exposed. In contrast, social identification theories show how opinion change can occur when a person's environmental context activates social knowledge stored in long-term memory. These theories propose that attitude change can result merely from increasing the perceived salience of a social conflict. They further propose that the direction and magnitude of opinion change should be unrelated to the tone or content of the information that draws attention to the conflict. This study examines how the ebb and flow of war news on the front page of the New York Times is related to changes in levels of domestic public support for major American military conflicts from 1950 to the present. We find no consistent or compelling evidence that levels of aggregate war support change in ways predicted by information updating models. To the contrary, a social identification process appears to be underlying the aggregate dynamics of war support.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-88
Number of pages24
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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