A multidimensional concept that links political cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors, political efficacy refers generally to citizens’ beliefs in their ability to influence the political system. In the half-century since its emergence, research on political efficacy has focused much on its conceptualization and operationalization. In communication research, however, scholarship has emphasized defining its antecedents and outcomes.
Defining And Measuring Political Efficacy
According to its initial formulation (Campbell et al. 1954), political efficacy referred to the feeling that political actions taken by individuals can have an impact on the political process. Early perspectives on the concept saw it not only as a psychological disposition, but also as a norm and as a behavior. In other words, if citizens are politically efficacious, they will be more likely to support a given political regime, be more trusting of that system, and be less likely to engage in activities that challenge the system. If political efficacy is a disposition and a norm, then politically efficacious citizens believe that they can and should participate in politics. Contemporary views have reverted to the original emphasis on feelings, and conceptualize political efficacy as having two dimensions: internal efficacy, which reflects a personal sense of political competence, and external efficacy, the belief that the political system is democratic and will respond to actions taken by its citizens.
Although scholars concur on the existence of these two constructs, the items used to measure them have been less consistent (Balch 1974; Morrell 2003). Grounded in large part in work in the American National Election Studies, most operationalizations of internal efficacy are based on one or more of the following Likert-scale items:
“I consider myself to be well qualified to participate in politics.”
“I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country.”
“I feel that I could as good a job in public office as most other people.”
“I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people.”
“Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on”
External efficacy, on the other hand, tends to be measured by items that include the following:
“People like me do not have any say about what the government does.”
“I don’t think public officials care much what people like me think.”
Although internal efficacy and external efficacy have been shown to be empirically related, this relationship is not always constant, and the presence of one does not necessarily imply the presence of the other. There are individuals who believe they can influence the system, yet perceive some politicians or elected officials to be unresponsive to efforts geared toward social change. Similarly, other individuals may perceive elected officials to be receptive to input, yet do not believe they themselves possess the knowledge or ability to take action to influence governmental policies.
Regardless, political efficacy is highly correlated with other cognitions and behaviors, and has played a key role in political theorizing. For example, a combination of efficacy and political trust can generate social or political change. According to William Gamson (1968), a combination of high internal efficacy and low political trust (linked to external efficacy) can motivate citizens to take action. However, the relationship between efficacy and action is reciprocal (Finkel 1985): Feelings of self-competence and system responsiveness can encourage political participation, and engaging in such activities can increase levels of internal and external efficacy.
Political Efficacy And Communication
The relationship between communication and political efficacy is not clear-cut; issues of causality and direction of effects remain unclear. A few trends have emerged from this front, however.
First, various studies have illustrated how newspaper reading increases knowledge, and with increased knowledge, enhances feelings of self-efficacy. Understandably, citizens who know more about politics will feel more self-confident and be more likely to perceive themselves as being able to take action. The fact that newspapers can physically devote more space to providing mobilizing information – information that allows readers to know how to take action (e.g., where a town-hall meeting will convene) – also can stimulate levels of self-efficacy. Whereas newspaper reading can enhance internal efficacy, television viewing is generally negatively associated with it, presumably due to how television news viewing decreases political knowledge. In other words, because television news focuses less on issues of substance, opting instead for coverage of personalities, places, and events, audience members relying primarily on television news will tend to experience lower levels of knowledge gain than newspaper readers. Despite this general trend, the view that newspapers are more effective than television news at imparting political knowledge has come under attack as researchers have begun to scrutinize the conceptualization and measurement of political knowledge and media use.
Second, when examining the effects of media content on feelings of efficacy, research illustrates that these effects are primarily negative. Numerous studies conducted over the past three decades have drawn the same conclusion: media negativity undermines political trust, a very close correlate of external efficacy. In their milestone study linking newspaper coverage with political cynicism and (external) efficacy, Miller et al. (1979) found that in a sea of primarily neutral or positive newspaper coverage, consumption of critical coverage led to greater distrust of the federal government, which in turn fueled feelings of system unresponsiveness. Over the years, television news coverage of politics has been more negative than newspaper coverage, and has grown increasingly so. Negatively valenced stories of Congress, presidential candidates, and democratic institutions regularly punctuate television news coverage, and more so in network news than local television news (Moy & Pfau 2000). Moreover, television production practices have evolved such that viewers regularly see close-ups of individuals engaged in politically contentious discussions (e.g., in a roundtable on a news talk show) or split screens in political debates (Mutz & Reeves 2005). These formats, which become more prominent as political discourse grows increasingly uncivil, can reduce trust in government, which in turn can decrease levels of external efficacy.
Newspapers and television news notwithstanding, negative portrayals of politicians and the political process appear in scores of other outlets. Political campaign advertisements are rife with negative messages designed to undermine the opposing candidate; viewers exposed to these negative advertisements can shift to voting for the sponsoring candidate or choose to disengage from the political process and abstain from voting. Television news magazines present 15-minute segments in which investigative reporters expose the truth behind a host of scandals, and illustrate the failings and foibles of politicians and others. Presented in a highly accessible and dramatic fashion, the conveying of such backstage information indicates to viewers that the system is not to be trusted. In even shorter segments, political talk radio hosts in the United States have taken to lambasting politicians and policies, employing forms of speech previously unheard over the airwaves. And with the fusing of political and popular communication, negative messages about the political system and those who occupy various offices can be found in late-night talk shows and entertainment content. Late night talk-show hosts devote the beginning of their shows to a monologue in which politicians and political incidents provide the fodder for most of their jokes. Shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, which have been adapted in several countries outside the US, satirize politicians, distort their personal traits, and deride their policies. For those who rely primarily on these non-news outlets, negative portrayals of politicians and the political system can shape perceptions; these anti-institutional themes communicate to audience members that the system cannot be relied upon and is intractable.
Third, the emergence of the Internet on the media landscape has changed how scholars view media effects on efficacy. There is no convergence of views on this front, and the differences map easily onto a spectrum anchored by optimism and pessimism. At one end, optimists believe new media technology can lower the costs of communicating with elected officials, expressing their views with others, and participating in public affairs. In addition, the wealth of information available on the Internet has the potential to increase knowledge about political issues. Together these factors can enhance perceptions that one can take effective political action. Pessimists, however, offer another view, contending that the Internet helps only to erode political efficacy. Specifically, the same wealth of political information online that would generate political knowledge could overwhelm a user and reduce his or her sense of self-efficacy. Also, increased levels of communication (e.g., emails) with elected officials may not necessarily mean increased responses from these individuals; this disjuncture would nurture perceptions of system unresponsiveness. Empirically, the data linking Internet use to political efficacy have generated inconsistent results. These inconsistencies derive in part from the context and time period in which the data were collected as well as the items used to measure Internet use. Some scholars prefer to operationalize the concept as access to the Internet, whereas others opt to employ measures of exposure to information about a campaign (or a given issue) or active seeking of such information (Kenski & Stroud 2006).
Fourth, communication effects on political efficacy include those of interpersonal communication. Much like mass-mediated content, discussion with others affords citizens the opportunity to gain knowledge about politics, learn about differing views and experiences, and understand how action can be taken. Perhaps more importantly, discussion about an issue allows citizens to learn that others feel the same way they do about an issue; the mere knowledge that others share one’s views may increase one’s feeling that effective action can be taken.
Efficacy May Influence Communication
Thus far, the aforementioned trends reflect those that situate political efficacy as causally subsequent to communication, not surprisingly given communication scholars’ focus on effects research. A smaller corpus of literature provides evidence for arguing causality in the other direction, i.e., that efficacy (particularly internal efficacy) influences communication.
In general, more self-efficacious individuals will tend to follow public affairs content, believing that additional information gleaned from the media will help them better understand the world around them and take action. This finding resonates with the uses-and-gratifications literature, which posits a menu of motivations as to why individuals use the media. Also, those who believe they possess some level of political self-competence will be more likely to express their opinions and communicate with others. This communication can take various forms, perhaps the easiest and most common ones being interpersonal discussion, particularly with like-minded others, and expression of views in an online setting (one that may or may not allow for anonymity). This communication may stem from a desire to rally support for a given cause or to take collective action. Finally, those with higher levels of internal efficacy also have a greater tendency to engage with media that allows for some level of interactivity, such as call-in radio and television talk shows.
In sum, it is clear that mass and interpersonal communication can shape one’s feelings of efficacy. However, as media outlets and genres proliferate, and as they attempt to attract different segments of the population, each with different orientations and motivations and dispositions, the relationships between communication and efficacy will need to be analyzed more closely.
- Balch, G. I. (1974). Multiple indicators in survey research: The concept “sense of political efficacy.” Political Methodology, 1, 1–43.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Campbell, A., Gurin, G., & Miller, W. E. (1954). The voter decides. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
- Finkel, S. E. (1985). Reciprocal effects of participation and political efficacy: A panel analysis. American Journal of Political Science, 29, 891–913.
- Gamson, W. (1968). Power and discontent. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.
- Kenski, K., & Stroud, N. J. (2006). Connections between Internet use and political efficacy, knowledge, and participation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 50, 173–192.
- Miller, A. H., Goldenberg, E. N., & Erbring, L. (1979). Type-set politics: Impact of newspapers on public confidence. American Political Science Review, 73, 67–84.
- Morrell, M. E. (2003). Survey and experimental evidence for a reliable and valid measure of internal political efficacy. Public Opinion Quarterly, 67, 589–602.
- Moy, P., & Pfau, M. (2000). With malice toward all? The media and public confidence in democratic institutions. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Mutz, D. C., & Reeves, B. (2005). The new videomalaise: Effects of televised incivility on political trust. American Political Science Review, 99, 1–15.