Value Words and Lizard Brains: Do Citizens Deliberate About Appeals to Their Core Values?



Political elites often present citizens with frames that define issues in terms of core values. This study tests two competing accounts of how citizens might process such frames. According to the “passive receiver” thesis, citizens process elite frames automatically, without engaging in critical thought. In contrast, the “thoughtful receiver” thesis holds that the impact of frames may depend on how favorably or unfavorably citizens respond to them. An experiment in value framing produced evidence more consistent with the thoughtful receiver thesis: The message that welfare reform is “tough love” influenced opinion only among those it did not anger, whereas the message that welfare reform is “cruel and inhumane” produced an effect only among those who judged it to be strong. More generally, these findings suggest that active processing of frames may limit the power of elite framing.