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Keywords:

  • political behaviour;
  • political attitudes;
  • participation;
  • democracy;
  • BPPS

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

The relationship between political participation and political attitudes is at the heart of any discussion about fostering democratic engagement. However, many authors simply presume that political attitudes reinforce political behaviour. Using a three-wave panel data set with more than 3,000 adolescents, we show that political attitudes do not necessarily precede behaviour. On the contrary, focusing on the relationships between five political attitudes and two variants of political participation, our findings indicate that it is much more likely that political participation strengthens political attitudes than that attitudes trigger participation. This does not mean that attitudes are irrelevant for behaviour, but the reverse impact is much stronger. More specifically, we find that the effects of being politically engaged on political interest, efficacy, confidence and norms of citizenship are clearly stronger than the effects of these attitudes on participation.

Democracy and participation have a mutually stimulating effect: democracy encourages citizens to participate and, in turn, by participating in democratic decision-making processes, citizens strengthen their democratic attitudes (see Barber, 1984; Dahl, 1998). The arguments for this recursive relationship are based on two distinct hypotheses. On the one hand, following the conventional attitudes–behaviour conceptualisation, participation is considered to be determined by mainly positive attitudes (predispositions) towards politics. Citizens who are interested in politics, who support democratic norms and values, who trust political institutions and feel politically efficacious are much more likely to become politically active than those who are uninterested, alienated and less confident. On the other hand, politically active citizens gain experience with political practices and attune their attitudes accordingly. They acquire political knowledge in exchanges both with like-minded people and with opponents. In addition, as participants in democratic debates learn to present arguments supporting their point of view and to take into account hostile interests and positions, they gradually develop their civic skills and become more likely to support democratic norms and values than their less active counterparts. Therefore, active citizens can be considered to be ‘better’ citizens not simply because they participate in democratic processes, but also because they tend to show strong support for democratic norms and values (Mansbridge, 1999).

These arguments for a reciprocal relationship might well be plausible, but they are not supported by much empirical evidence. Various attitudes can indeed be considered to be predispositions for behaviour, but people do not always follow their beliefs. Drawn from the seminal work of Richard LaPiere (1934) on racial prejudice, the notion of the attitude–behaviour gap suggests that people say one thing and do the opposite – and vice versa. Whereas the impact of attitudes on behaviour has been studied extensively, analyses of the impact of behaviour on various attitudes are relatively scarce, particularly with regard to the possible consequences of political participation. At the end of a detailed overview of recent studies on political participation, André Blais (2010, p. 183) concludes:

[E]ven more importantly, we need to understand whether, how and why the fact of voting (or not), contacting government officials (or not), or marching in the streets (or not) does or does not change people's view of society. Supporters of participatory democracy assume that being engaged makes one a ‘better’ citizen. We still do not know whether this claim is (mostly) valid or not.

In this article, we explore the association between attitudes and behaviour by analysing recursive relationships between political participation and political attitudes. The main question is whether participants already had specific attitudes before becoming involved in political activities or whether actual participation made them ‘better’ citizens – or both. Data from a three-wave panel study among Belgian citizens aged 16, 18 and 21 years allow us to examine empirically the relationships between political attitudes and behaviour and to extend the results of more limited analyses (Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012). We focus on young people because they are still forming a habit of political participation (Campbell, 2006; Plutzer, 2002) and their attitudes are still developing as well (Hess and Torney, 1967; Hooghe and Wilkenfeld, 2008). Since political consumerism in particular is claimed to be strongly related to ethical and moral reasoning, we compare the results of our analyses for this mode of participation with the results obtained for more common activities such as taking part in demonstrations, signing petitions or attending political meetings. The main conclusion of our analysis is that the impact of behaviour on attitudes is much stronger than the impact of attitudes on behaviour; that is, being politically active makes young citizens ‘better’ democrats, especially in terms of political attitudes and normative considerations. The study thus fills the gap in the literature identified by Blais by presenting findings that have important implications both for our understanding of political behaviour and for the discussions about the preconditions and opportunities for developing ‘active’ and ‘better’ citizens.

Political Attitudes and Political Participation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

Broadly speaking, political participation can be defined as activities undertaken by citizens to influence political decisions (Brady, 1999; van Deth, 2001). In their seminal work on participation in America, Sidney Verba et al. (1995, p. 38) defined participation more precisely as ‘an activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action – either directly by effecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies’. In democratic political systems, these activities take many different forms. Until the early 1960s, the concept of political participation was mainly limited to voting and campaigning as well as to contacts between citizens and public officials. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the range of political activities was expanded to include community groups and direct contacts between citizens, public officials and politicians. More importantly, protest forms such as demonstrating, blocking traffic or signing petitions were added to the political repertoire of democratic citizens, as were new social movements. In the 1990s, further expansion included civil activities such as volunteering and social engagement. Recently, political consumption or, more generally, ethical consumer practices have become widespread. Many of these new modes of participation, such as boycotts, strikes or consumer actions, have had a long tradition in social conflicts; what is new is that they are now viewed as part of citizens' repertoire of political action. This repertoire, then, has continuously expanded in democratic political systems through the inclusion of new modes of participation and the practice of previously non-political activities for political reasons (see Norris, 2002; van Deth, 2001).

Although attitudes are certainly not regarded as the only determinant of participation, they are generally considered highly relevant. As a starting point for our analyses, we therefore follow the conventional idea that attitudes can indeed be seen as ‘a behaviour pattern, anticipatory set or tendency, predisposition to specific adjustment to designated social situations’ (LaPiere, 1934, p. 230). In particular, research inspired by Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein (1977) and Ajzen (1988) relies heavily on this line of reasoning. More specifically, interest in political affairs, the feeling of being politically efficacious, the level of political confidence and the support for norms and values promoting democratic behaviour are seen as important predictors of political participation. The expected impact of these four political attitudes – interest, efficacy, confidence and norms – can be summarised in the straightforward expectation that stronger support for political attitudes will lead to an increase in political participation. Since the reverse effect cannot be excluded, our hypothesis focuses on the relative strength of attitudinal effects:

  • H1a: The impact of political attitudes on political behaviour is stronger than the impact of political behaviour on political attitudes.

Stated in these terms, H1a reflects the general notion that political attitudes have a stronger impact on political participation than vice versa. Similar theses have been defended by many scholars in the field of political behaviour (compare Almond and Verba, 1963; Campbell et al., 1960; Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993, p. 19; Verba and Nie, 1972; Verba et al., 1995).1 Only very few researchers presume that attitudes will have no effect on political participation, or that they reinforce each other to an equal extent (see, for instance, Pincock 2011, who found no relationship between efficacy and deliberation).

According to this line of reasoning, recent expansions of the political repertoire mainly reflect changes in attitudes. Summarising the results for the United States, Russell Dalton (2008, p. 78) concludes that ‘changing norms reinforce a new style of political action’. This argument is strengthened by the rising trend of political consumption. As consumers, individuals can try to exert influence by deliberately buying or refusing to buy certain products (‘buycotts’ and ‘boycotts’, respectively). Although there are reasonable doubts regarding the novelty of political consumerism as a form of political participation, Michele Micheletti in particular described political consumerism as a newer form of ‘individualized collective action’ (Micheletti, 2003, ch. 2); in other words, participation is driven almost completely by ethical and moral reasoning. She characterises these activities as follows:

[P]olitical consumerism is politics when people knowingly target market actors to express their opinions on justice, fairness, or noneconomic issues that concern personal and family well-being. When they shop in this fashion they are using their consumer choice as an ethical or political assessment of favorable and unfavorable business and government practice (Micheletti, 2003, p. 14).

Crucially, these modes of participation are ethically and morally motivated and should be considered as expressions of opinion (Marien et al., 2010; Newman and Bartels, 2011). As Andreas Follesdal (2004, p. 19) remarks, ‘Political consumerism allows individuals … to express their sense of justice as citizens of the world’. Apparently, political consumerism is the attitude-driven mode of participation par excellence. Even if political attitudes turn out to have little impact on political participation in general, they could still be expected to play a major role in determining political consumerism:

  • H1b: The impact of political attitudes on political consumption is stronger than the impact of political consumption on political attitudes.

Political Participation and Political Attitudes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

An alternative approach or rival hypothesis is to focus on the attitudinal consequences of behaviour rather than on the behavioural consequences of attitudes. The idea that attitudes are shaped by past behaviour is common in classical social psychology but often neglected in political participation research. Social psychologists have argued, for instance in self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) and other cognitive dissonance theories (Festinger, 1957; Markus, 1986), that people change their attitudes and emotions based on what they infer from their own (political) behaviour. Thus, people who participate in politics might also become more interested in politics, or start feeling that they can make a difference (see also Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012, for a similar analysis using the action-based model of cognitive dissonance). The recent revival of interest in the work of Tocqueville has added weight to the argument that political attitudes arise under certain social conditions. Being active in voluntary associations, for instance, will not only increase civic skills, but also strengthen democratic political attitudes (Quintelier, 2013). In this way, institutionalised social contacts provide a ‘school of democracy’ where people learn and internalise political attitudes (Putnam, 2000; Schlozman et al., 2012; Tocqueville, 1990, pp. 116–7). Furthermore, Brian Christens et al. (2011; compare McIntosh and Youniss, 2010) show that community participation precedes psychological empowerment. Applying this line of reasoning to the relationships between political participation and attitudes, we expect a clear impact of political activities on the political attitudes of citizens. Therefore, the rival to Hypothesis 1a is:

  • H2a: The impact of political behaviour on political attitudes is stronger than the impact of political attitudes on political behaviour.

As is the case for the first hypothesis, this prediction is expected to be valid for all modes of participation. Yet newer, individualised modes of participation particularly tend to engender ethical and moral discussions about the aims of the actions carried out. To quote Micheletti again: ‘Democratic political consumerism is a virtue-practicing activity’ (Micheletti, 2003, p. 150). This argument is supported by findings concerning the consequences of ‘green’ shopping (Mazar and Zhong, 2010). As moral and ethical reasoning is an important aspect of political consumption, the actual use of this mode of participation is likely to have a relatively strong impact on political attitudes:

  • H2b: The impact of political consumption on political attitudes is stronger than the impact of political attitudes on political consumption.

Although the two sets of hypotheses posit mutually exclusive causal links, they are not inconsistent from a cyclical perspective. People with a relatively high level of support for political attitudes are more likely to become politically active. Subsequently or simultaneously, their initial attitudes will be strengthened by the development of civic skills and experience with political processes (compare Burkhalter et al., 2002; Flanagan and Christens, 2011a; Gastil and Xenos, 2010). Obviously, as Ellen Quintelier and Marc Hooghe (2012) suggested on the basis of a two-wave panel, the process can also start with participation, which may reinforce young people's political attitudes and lead them to more active participation in the future. In this way, a positive spiral of political engagement is started that will end when a certain level of saturation is reached. Citizens who are effectively motivated and mobilised, then, are ‘better’ citizens than others because they actually participate and because they support political attitudes more strongly. Obviously, an initially low level of support for political attitudes or a low level of participation could start a negative spiral (Schlozman et al., 2012).

Research Design and Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

Empirical studies on the relationships between attitudes and behaviour are usually based on cross-sectional research designs.2 Our two sets of rival hypotheses, however, clearly point to a specific order of presumed determinants and effects rather than to mere coexistence. Testing these relationships, especially the cyclical effects of political engagement, requires a longitudinal research design that models the sequential order of attitudes preceding behaviour (H1a and H1b), behaviour preceding attitudes (H2a and H2b) or equal effects. Moreover, cyclical or recursive effects can only be explored if at least three consecutive observations are available. This article, therefore, offers a more nuanced understanding than previous analyses of the first two waves of the same data set (Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012).

Figure 1 shows the basic structure of the auto-regressive model, that is, the relationships between political behaviour and political attitudes at three points in time (Finkel, 2007). The model consists of three types of estimation: stability effects, auto-correlated errors and cross-lagged effects. First, the effect of political behaviour at Time 1 on political behaviour at Time 2 (γ3) measures the persistence or stability of political participation between Time 1 and Time 2, whereas β3 measures the stability of political behaviour between Time 2 and Time 3. Similarly, γ4 and β4 measure the stability of political attitudes between Time 1 and 2 and Time 2 and 3, respectively. Second, the repeated measures of political attitudes and behaviour are related to each other at each of the three points in time. This effect is measured by the auto-correlated errors ψ1, ψ2 and ψ3. Third, to test our hypotheses the most interesting associations are the cross-lagged effects, that is, the effects of attitudes on participation (γ1 and β1) and of participation on attitudes (γ2 and β2). To corroborate H1a and H1b, the effects pointing north-east (γ1 and β1) should be significantly stronger than the corresponding south-east pointing effects (γ2 and β2), whereas H2a and H2b are supported when the latter effects are stronger than the first.3

figure

Figure 1. A Three-Wave, Two-Variable Model for Political Behaviour and Political Attitudes

Note: Correlated errors between the items over time, as well as factor loadings, are not presented.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Since we presume attitudes and behaviour to be closely related and interdependent, straightforward tests of separate relationships are not sufficient. Therefore, a crucial test of our approach is to compare directly the various cross-lagged effects in order to determine whether the impact of attitudes on behaviour is stronger than the impact of behaviour on attitudes. This test can be performed by constraining the two cross-lagged effects to be equal between the same time points (for instance, γ1 and γ2 between Time 1 and Time 2). If the Chi2 difference test for the model fit yields a significant difference, then this indicates that there are significant differences in the cross-lagged parameters. If so, an unconstrained model should clearly be preferred, with either the effect of political attitudes on political participation or the effect of participation on attitudes being stronger. An insignificant p-value for this test, on the other hand, would indicate that both models have a similar fit. If so, there is no statistically valid reason to assume that one relationship would be stronger than the other.4 Tables 2 and 3 present the outcome (e.g. the best fitting models) of this three-step procedure for the different political attitudes and political participation/consumerism.

Data and Operationalisation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

To test the model specified in Figure 1 empirically, we need panel data on political attitudes and participation covering at least three points in time. Moreover, for our purposes, young people represent the most interesting population as they are undergoing major changes in their lives, which are likely to be accompanied by shifts in either political behaviour or attitudes, thus providing a basis for disentangling determinants and effects. The Belgian Political Panel Survey (BPPS) 2006–11 uniquely meets these requirements. The BPPS is a three-wave panel survey of Belgian youngsters who were interviewed at ages 16, 18 and 21 (both the French and Dutch-speaking communities) (Hooghe et al., 2011). In the first wave, a representative sample of 6,330 young people in secondary school (fourth year of secondary school or tenth grade) were selected through a stratified sample, based on location and type of school. In each school, a minimum of 50 students was selected, representative of the academic tracks in that school. Pupils were surveyed about their school environment, citizenship, political attitudes, political behaviour and political socialisation agents. A total of 3,025 respondents were interviewed in each of the three waves, enabling us to follow these youngsters during a critical phase in their lives.

The BPPS questionnaire includes several measures for political behaviour. In each wave the respondents are invited to report whether they participated (sometimes, often or not at all) in any of the following activities: wearing a badge, signing a petition, participating in a protest march, forwarding a political email, displaying a political message, attending a political meeting and contacting a politician. These seven items form a one-dimensional, equivalent scale in each of the three waves.5 Since all items refer to activities that are typically seen as modes of political participation, the resulting scale is used here as a measure of the ‘political participation’ latent construct. Because political consumerism is considered here as a political activity that is closely related to attitudes, a separate scale using two items was created: (1) did the respondents (frequently, occasionally, never) buy a product for environmental, political or social reasons (buycott); and (2) did they refuse to buy a product for such reasons (boycott)?6 For descriptive and bivariate analyses, we use additive scales to measure the two types of political participation, whereas latent variables are used in the structural equation models presented below.

In addition to the measures for political participation, the BPPS covers a number of political attitudes. To test the hypotheses presented in the previous section, several attitudes were selected which are generally presumed to be related to political behaviour. The set of selected attitudes includes affective, evaluative and normative aspects of political attitudes (and thus covers a much broader variety of attitudes than political interest and trust, the measures used by Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012). Attentiveness to political affairs is measured by the standard question for subjective political interest: ‘Generally speaking, how interested are you in political and societal problems?’ (not at all interested, somewhat interested, interested, very interested) (compare Gabriel and van Deth, 1995). To assess respondents' feelings of political efficacy, they were asked how often they found politics too complicated to understand (usually, regularly, occasionally, rarely, never).7 Political confidence is indicated by the degree of confidence in the federal government and in the regional and federal parliaments (all rated on a scale from 0 to 10). Finally, support for norms and values promoting democratic behaviour was assessed through questions about important aspects of being a ‘good citizen’, distinguishing between political and social attitudes. Respondents were invited to indicate whether a ‘good political citizen’ should cast a vote, be politically active and follow the news. The image of a ‘good social citizen’ was operationalised as the level of support for the statements that we should look after those who are less well off, that people should volunteer and that they should be active in their neighbourhood. All six ‘good citizen' items were rated on a 5-point scale. As with political participation, sum scales are used for descriptive analyses and latent variables for the structural equation models.

Finally, several control variables were included in the empirical analyses to eliminate bias due to compositional effects or spurious correlations. Since neither behavioural nor attitudinal variables could be used for this purpose, indicators of the respondents' socio-demographic background and their resources were selected. Political participation has always been unequal: men, respondents with higher socio-economic status, middle-aged people and autochthonous inhabitants are more likely to engage in any form of political participation (Schlozman et al., 2012). Surprisingly, these differences are largely the same for newer, individualised modes of political participation, the only exception being that women apparently succeed in narrowing or even reversing the gap (Marien et al., 2010; Verba et al., 1995). Since the main purpose here is to explore the relationships between political attitudes and behaviour, we do not need an exhaustive list of possible antecedents. Instead, gender, socio-economic status and nationality were selected to cover the main impacts of socio-demographic factors and resources. Gender (coded 0 for boys, 48.2 per cent of the sample) and nationality (coded 0 for Belgian nationality, 96.7 per cent of the sample) were measured by a dummy, while socio-economic status was assessed using factor scores on a scale of educational track, educational goal and number of books at home at age sixteen (explained variance: 56.1 per cent). We did not control for age, because this variable has limited variance since all respondents were selected in the same grade in the first wave.

The present design provides a substantial improvement over the available analyses of the first two waves of the BPPS, which focused on the relationship between political participation and political interest or trust (Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012). These analyses showed that political participation between the ages of sixteen and eighteen leads to greater political interest and, to a lesser extent, to greater trust. This article builds on this finding and explores the development of these relationships between the ages of eighteen and 21, using a broader range of political attitudes (five vs. two) and modes of participation (two vs. one mode; different concepts). We expect that as adolescents mature into adulthood, their political attitudes will be more likely to have an impact on participation. Young adults are also more likely to change their political attitudes and behaviour in a ‘natural’ way during the period studied, for instance as they become less impressionable (Alwin et al., 1992) and learn about political institutions. Young adolescents in particular are relatively more open to new experiences and impressions, which affect their ‘sense of social corporation’ and their ‘psychological well-being and mental health’ (Flanagan and Christens, 2011b, p. 2). While it is quite easy to be involved in a specific political activity, developing a broad general political attitude might take longer (Ajzen, 1988). Furthermore, our theoretical approach differs from previous studies: whereas Quintelier and Hooghe (2012) adopt a socialisation and social psychology perspective (cognitive dissonance), this article is grounded in the traditional ‘good citizen’, attitude–behaviour and political participation literature.

Descriptives

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

Descriptive features of the seven core measures (two measures of political participation and five for political attitudes) are summarised in Table 1. The significance levels of the changes occurring between the first and second wave and between the second and third wave are also reported. As the figures show, changes at the aggregate level are very minor: while political participation peaks at age eighteen and declines slightly by age 21, the level of political consumerism keeps rising. For political attitudes, we see quite divergent trends: political interest rises steadily, whereas political efficacy and political confidence decline.8 Support for the conception of political citizenship peaks at age eighteen and declines again afterwards. Social citizenship, on the other hand, remains quite stable until the age of eighteen and also attracts less support afterwards. This suggests that each political attitude develops at a different pace and with a different trend. Thus, an important condition for testing our hypotheses is fulfilled: the changes observed indicate that the levels of political attitudes and behaviour vary considerably.

Table 1. Core Measures for Political Behaviour and Attitudes (Means and Standard Deviations)
 First waveSecond waveThird waveDifferences
Age 16Age 18Age 2116–1818–21
  1. Notes: Maximum N = 3,025. Significances are for paired sample t-tests. Levels of significance: *** p < 0.001; **p < 0.01; *p < 0.05.

Behavioural variables:     
● Political participation (0–7)1.10 (1.35)1.26 (1.48)1.19 (1.48)*****
● Political consumption (0–2)0.51 (0.91)0.62 (0.99)0.76 (1.11)******
Attitudinal variables:     
● Political interest (0–4)2.02 (0.79)2.22 (0.82)2.36 (0.86)******
● Political efficacy (0–4)2.77 (1.11)2.67 (1.11)2.63 (1.12)****
● Political confidence (0–10)5.13 (2.13)4.97 (2.08)4.20 (2.03)******
● Good political citizen (0–5)2.40 (1.08)2.69 (1.02)2.47 (1.09)******
● Good social citizen (0–5)2.72 (0.94)2.72 (0.90)2.68 (0.91) **
Table 2. Relationships between Two Forms of Political Participation and Political Interest (SEM Estimates)
 Political participationPolitical consumption
  1. Notes: Results for the best fitting models (Model I) after controlling whether γ12 and β12 can be constrained to be equal (Chi2 difference test). Entries are unstandardised coefficients (standard errors in brackets), standardised coefficients and levels of significance (***p < 0.001; **p < 0.01; *p < 0.05; two-tailed p-values). Bold coefficients indicate significant differences. Serially correlated errors between the items, as well as factor loadings, intercepts and residual variances, are not presented.

Persistence effects  
Political participation 16–18 (γ3)0.759 (0.066)0.693 (0.046)
0.636***0.606***
Political participation 18–21 (β3)0.629 (0.065)0.68 (0.036)
0.63***0.585***
Political interest 16–18 (γ4)0.422 (0.023)0.466 (0.02)
0.400***0.443***
Political interest 18–21 (β4)0.529 (0.021)0.554 (0.018)
0.507***0.528***
Cross-lagged effects  
Political participation 16 –0.816 (0.149)0.234 (0.049)
political interest 18 (γ2)0.182***0.106***
Political participation 18 –0.410 (0.105)0.208 (0.04)
political interest 21 (β2)0.104***0.103***
Political interest 16 –0.024 (0.005)0.035 (0.007)
political participation 18 (γ1)0.084***0.064***
Political interest 18 –0.009 (0.007)0.045 (0.007)
political participation 21 (β1)0.0340.075***
Error covariances  
Political participation 16 –0.047 (0.005)0.059 (0.008)
political interest 16 (ψ1)0.355***0.221***
Political participation 18 –0.035 (0.004)0.053 (0.007)
political interest 18 (ψ2)0.307***0.223***
Political participation 21 –0.034 (0.004)0.046 (0.007)
political interest 21 (ψ3)0.288***0.167***
Control variables  
Political participation 16  
Gender−0.011 (0.009)0.056 (0.016)
−0.0290.075***
Socio-economic status0.050 (0.006)0.101 (0.009)
0.274***0.271***
No Belgian nationality0.069 (0.026)−0.042 (0.036)
0.067**−0.020
Political interest 16  
Gender−0.097 (0.029)−0.107 (0.029)
−0.062***−0.069***
Socio-economic status0.239 (0.014)0.240 (0.014)
0.306***0.307***
No Belgian nationality−0.013 (0.085)−0.069 (0.085)
−0.003−0.016
Explained variance  
Political participation 160.0780.086
Political participation 180.4550.393
Political participation 210.4180.377
Political interest 160.0920.093
Political interest 180.2530.234
Political interest 210.3160.325
Table 3. Relationships between Political Attitudes and Two Forms of Political Participation
 Political participationPolitical consumption
  1. Notes: Results for the best fitting models (Model I) after controlling whether γ12 and β12 can be constrained to be equal (Chi2 difference test). Entries are unstandardised coefficients (standard errors in brackets), standardised coefficients and levels of significance (***p < 0.001; **p < 0.01; *p < 0.05; two-tailed p-values). Bold coefficients indicate significant differences. Serially correlated errors between the items, as well as factor loadings, intercepts and residual variances, are not presented.

Cross-lagged effects for political efficacy  
Political participation 16 – political efficacy 18 (γ2)0.635 (0.161)−0.003 (0.005)
0.107***−0.001
Political participation 18 –0.498 (0.112)−0.007 (0.005)
political efficacy 21 (β2)0.099***−0.002
Political efficacy 16 –−0.003 (0.004)−0.003 (0.005)
political participation 18 (γ1)−0.015−0.008
Political efficacy 18 –0.015 (0.003)−0.007 (0.005)
political participation 21 (β1)0.074***−0.017
Cross-lagged effects for political confidence  
Political participation 16 – political confidence 18 (γ2)0.007 (0.004)0.694 (0.135)
0.001*0.112***
Political participation 18 –0.002 (0.003)0.010 (0.004)
political confidence 21 (β2)0.0000.002*
Political confidence 16 –0.007 (0.004)0.009 (0.004)
political participation 18 (γ1)0.072*0.05*
Political confidence 18 –0.002 (0.003)0.010 (0.004)
political participation 21 (β1)0.0210.045*
Cross-lagged effects for good political citizen  
Political participation 16 – good political citizen 18 (γ2)0.029 (0.015)0.058 (0.012)
0.007*0.026***
Political participation 18 – good political citizen 21 (β2)0.588 (0.120)0.272 (0.047)
0.157***0.131***
Good political citizen 16 –0.029 (0.015)0.058 (0.012)
political participation 18 (γ1)0.109*0.122***
Good political citizen 18 –0.023 (0.011)0.032 (0.014)
political participation 21 (β1)0.081*0.056*
Cross-lagged effects for good social citizen  
Political participation 16 – good social citizen 18 (γ2)0.032 (0.007)0.043 (0.012)
0.01***0.024***
Political participation 18 –0.267 (0.077)0.067 (0.017)
Good social citizen 21 (β2)0.095***0.042***
Good social citizen 16 –0.032 (0.007)0.043 (0.012)
political participation 18 (γ1)0.089***0.067***
Good social citizen 18 –−0.005 (0.011)0.067 (0.017)
political participation 21 (β1)−0.0140.090***

Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

The model presented in Figure 1 consists of the general concepts of political behaviour and political attitudes as well as their structural relationships. To test our hypotheses adequately, measurement error9 should systematically be taken into account and simple additive scales have to be replaced by latent constructs. Instead of developing these measures independently from the structure to which they will be applied, we employ structural equation modelling (SEM) as it enables us to estimate the measures for political attitudes and behaviour simultaneously with various structural coefficients. In order to reduce the amount of information, we only present the best fitting full model for political interest and political behaviour (Table 2). The model fit for all models is presented in the online Appendix.

Table 2 summarises the empirical results obtained for political participation (Chi2: 989.086, 315df; SCF: 1.413; CFI: 0.903; RMSEA: 0.028) and political consumption (Chi2: 380.657, 40df; SCF: 1.071; CFI: 0.947; RMSEA: 0.055) on the one hand, and political interest on the other. First of all, the persistence coefficients indicate that the persistence or stability of political participation and political consumerism is slightly higher than the persistence of political interest.10 Overall, both political interest and participation and consumerism remain quite stable over time. Second, the error correlations between the measures of political interest and political behaviour at each time point also show quite consistent patterns and only slightly lower coefficients for political consumption. These stability coefficients are sometimes smaller than expected from the literature, due to the fact that we compare general political attitudes with specific acts of political behaviour, which might not always overlap (Ajzen, 1988). Third, gender, socio-economic status and nationality are included as control variables. Apparently, girls are more likely to participate in political consumption but are neither more nor less likely to participate in other political activities (compare Hooghe and Stolle, 2004). On the other hand, girls are already less interested in politics than boys from a relatively young age. People with higher socio-economic status are more likely to engage in all forms of political behaviour and to be more politically interested. As far as nationality is concerned, there are hardly any differences between the groups, except that respondents without Belgian nationality are slightly more likely to participate in political activities than others.

With regard to the key question of whether attitudes precede behaviour or vice versa, the crucial items in Table 2 are the coefficients for the cross-lagged effects. Table 2 presents the results for the auto-regressive models after the model fit of the different models has been compared with the constraints: for each form of political participation, the effect of participation on political interest is larger than the effect of political interest on any form of participation. (For Chi2 difference tests, see online Appendices S1 and S2.)11 These findings reject hypotheses H1a and H1b and support the second set of hypotheses (a larger effect of political participation on attitudes, H2a and H2b). The results are also presented in Figure 2.

figure

Figure 2. A Three-Wave Model for Political Participation and Political Interest

Note: Correlated errors between the items over time, as well as factor loadings and effects of control variables, are not presented. Levels of significance: ***p < 0.001; **p < 0.01; *p < 0.05; p > 0.05: ns.

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Having elaborated the procedure for estimating the models with the example of political interest, we can present the following models more concisely. Because our hypotheses focus on cross-lagged relationships, we will present these effects in a single table. The cross-lagged effects for the four remaining political attitudes and the two political behaviour scales are given in Table 3,12 which thus contains 16 pairs of cross-lagged effects (2 types of political participation * 4 remaining political attitudes * 2 time points). The results of these analyses are striking: none of the comparisons support the assumption that attitudes precede behaviour, as expressed in our first set of hypotheses (H1a–b). All comparisons either corroborate the primacy of behaviour over attitudes (six estimates, H2a–b)13 or point to equal cross-lagged effects between attitudes and behaviour (seven estimates). Out of these seven, three cross-lagged effects, such as, for instance, between political efficacy and political consumption, can be constrained equally but have no significant effect. To sum up, out of a total of 20 tests (Tables 2 and 3), hypotheses H2a and H2b were confirmed 10 times, that is, in 10 different tests behaviour was found to have a stronger effect on attitudes than attitudes on behaviour, while no test supported the idea that attitudes have more effect on behaviour. Furthermore, we find seven equal and three non-significant effects. Apparently, political behaviour stimulates political attitudes more than the other way round (at best, they mutually reinforce each other), but not one result supports the thesis that attitudes lead to behaviour.

The expectation that political participation would have a greater effect on political attitudes (Hypothesis 2a) was supported 6 times out of 10, while 3 equal cross-lagged effects and 1 equal non-significant effect were found. Hypothesis 2b, which states that behaviour is likely to have a relatively strong effect on political attitudes, is clearly corroborated for political consumption as well. For political consumerism, we find four larger effects for the impact of behaviour on political attitudes (out of ten tests), while none of the attitude–behaviour relationships are more prominent. Furthermore, four equal cross-lagged effects can be found, with two effects being non-significant. These results are summarised in Figure 3.

figure

Figure 3. Overview of Expectations and Main Results

Note: Age 16–18 (γ1 < γ2): 4; age 18–21 (β1 < β2): 6.

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Taken together, these finding corroborate the assumption on which our second set of hypotheses is based, that is, that behaviour precedes attitudes, or at least that attitudes and behaviour reinforce each other. As our models do not always perfectly fit the data, we tried to improve the model fit.14 However, the results also hold if we improve the model fit: a significantly more prominent effect of political behaviour on political attitudes was found in seven cases while, once again, there was no evidence that attitudes are more likely to stimulate behaviour. Furthermore, we find nine equal and four non-significant effects.

Overall, the results of these computations for the four hypotheses developed clearly suggest that the first set of hypotheses – attitudes predominantly influence behaviour – is not supported. However, the strong emphasis on reciprocal relationships that John Gastil and Michael Xenos (2010) report for efficacy and faith was not confirmed by our analyses for more general political attitudes. Furthermore, these developments clearly show the limitations of two-wave panel models reported earlier. Whereas the effects of political interest remain large and significant, the limited effects of political trust become more prominent between the second and the third wave. Finally, the analyses suggest that it is important to analyse political consumption separately. Although attitudes and behaviour reinforce each other, the evidence for larger and significant effects of political behaviour on political attitudes is much more convincing.

Discussion and Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information

Starting with the seminal studies on political participation, political scientists have often presumed that political attitudes reinforce political behaviour. The results presented here, however, strongly suggest that the implied causal relationship is not straightforward. Using a three-wave panel set with more than 3,000 respondents, we show that political attitudes have a smaller effect on behaviour than behaviour on attitudes. Focusing on the relationships between a number of political attitudes and two variants of political participation, our findings indicate that it is much more likely that political participation strengthens political attitudes than that attitudes result in participation (see Figure 3). That is not to say that attitudes are irrelevant for behaviour. Clearly, attitudes do have an impact on behaviour, but the reverse impact is much stronger. In this way, Blais' question cited at the beginning of our analyses – that we need to understand whether participation ‘does or does not change people's view of society’ (Blais, 2010, p. 183) – can be answered affirmatively. More specifically, we now know that the effects of being engaged politically on political interest, efficacy, confidence and norms of citizenship are clearly stronger than the effects of these attitudes on participation.

The general precedence of political participation over political attitudes, complemented by a much weaker impact of attitudes on behaviour, is probably only beneficial for democracy in the short term. The fact that a part of the population can be characterised as ‘better’ citizens because they participate and clearly share political attitudes is a reassuring finding for all theorists who stress the importance of participation and attitudes for democratic decision-making processes. As long as participation does not result in frustration, these citizens will contribute to a vibrant democracy. The flip side is, of course, that non-mobilised and unmotivated parts of the population are trapped: apparently they do not want to participate in politics – and because they are not actually participating they will not develop the attitudes required for political engagement (Schlozman et al., 2012). Disentangling the sequential relationships between attitudes and behaviour, then, has important implications for the future of democracy.

The next question is what these findings mean for research on political participation. First and foremost, our results do not imply that all political participation research should be based on a redefinition of the presumed causality between attitudes and behaviour. These results, however, suggest the need for a theoretical re-evaluation of psychological approaches focusing on self-perception (Bem, 1972) or the development of critical consciousness and social responsibility among citizens (Flanagan and Christens, 2011b) in political science. As Gastil and Xenos (2010) emphasised, these approaches offer much more promising theoretical explanations for the development of political attitudes and behaviour than approaches stressing the relevance of attitudes for the explanation of behaviour. As mentioned above, the results obtained with our models explicitly leave room for effects of political attitudes on behaviour. However, analyses based on simple cross-sectional designs should be carefully evaluated by reversing the position of the dependent and independent variables. As an alternative, recall data about prior levels of political participation could be used, but these are never as reliable as panel data.

Furthermore, considerable prior research has shown a decline in political participation and has suggested solutions to counteract this trend. Based on previous analyses of the first two waves (Quintelier and Hooghe, 2012), we expected the effect of attitudes on behaviour to become more prevalent between the ages of eighteen and 21. Yet this does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, the results yield 4 more prominent effects of behaviour on attitudes between ages 16 and 18, and 6 between the ages of 18 and 21. Some authors have proposed initiatives to promote internet use or to increase political knowledge or political efficacy through citizenship education with the aim of fostering political participation (Milner, 2010). Since it is much more likely that political behaviour precedes political attitudes than the other way round, it might be more appropriate (and easier) to focus directly on increasing actual political participation (Burkhalter et al., 2002; McIntosh and Youniss, 2010). This strategy might be more fruitful because it would lead to stronger support for political attitudes that are important for democracy. If young people are much more interested in direct opportunities for engagement, stimulating (or even ‘forcing’) them to become politically active will probably lead to engagement in other forms of participation as well as to more developed democratic political attitudes. Even participation in non-political activities such as service learning, after-school programmes, youth-led curricula and volunteering is likely to strengthen social responsibility and critical consciousness and, consequently, increase (future) political behaviour (Flanagan and Christens, 2011a). In addition to these largely voluntary activities, compulsory voting might be reconsidered from this perspective as a promising instrument to increase support for democratic political attitudes. It should be noted, however, that all these measures seem able to improve democratic attitudes among young adolescents except for efficacy, which is apparently related differently to political behaviour (Gastil and Xenos, 2010; Pincock, 2011).

As we found that political participation leads to greater support for democratic political attitudes, we argue that newly emerging democracies, for instance in the wake of the Arab Spring, should provide their citizens with opportunities to engage in ‘conventional’ modes of political participation. If people feel they are listened to, they will hopefully develop more positive political attitudes towards the emerging democratic political system as well. However, as the process of socialisation is fundamentally culture dependent (Sapiro, 2004), future studies should examine whether these patterns hold in new democracies.

The study presented here has some obvious limitations that should be kept in mind before sweeping generalisations are made. First, our panel is limited to Belgian people in late adolescence and findings for other countries are not available. However, as we study the development of political behaviour and political attitudes and the interplay between them, our findings probably do not represent a specifically Belgian phenomenon, but a more general process of political socialisation. Although the level of political attitudes and behaviour varies in different countries, the relationships between political attitudes and behaviour probably do not differ very much. A second limitation seems to be more important. The panel consists of adolescents whose political attitudes and habits of political behaviour are still developing (García Albaceta, 2011). Since their attitudes are probably not yet fully formed and may take longer to develop than political behaviour, the effects observed of behaviour on political attitudes might be specific to this age group. However, their attitudes and behaviour are surprisingly persistent, considering the fact that Belgium was recently hit by the worldwide economic crisis, and was further destabilised by one of the longest government formation periods in history and by the possibility of Belgium being split into two separate countries, a debate fuelled by a Flemish nationalist party (N-VA). Therefore, other panel studies should be developed to test whether these relationships also hold among other age groups and in other situations before general conclusions about the (ir)relevance of attitudes for political behaviour are accepted.

Notes
  1. 1

    In a similar way, it is argued that ‘education has a positive impact on Active Citizenship behaviour which, we believe from the robustness of the findings is likely to be causal’ (Hoskins et al., 2008, p. 397).

  2. 2

    Even sophisticated meta-analyses of environmental attitudes and behaviour are frequently based on simple cross-sectional correlations only (Schwenk and Möser, 2009).

  3. 3

    Since the impacts of attitudes and behaviour are expected to be evident after a relatively short period of time, the two cross-lagged effects t[1] – t[3] are neglected here.

  4. 4

    The existence of this last result is an important aspect of our research design, since it enables the falsification of all four hypotheses presented.

  5. 5

    Structural equation modelling (SEM) is used to evaluate scalability. For the participation scale these coefficients are CFI 0.948 and RMSEA 0.043 (all three waves combined).

  6. 6

    Measurement invariance was not assessed as the scale has only two indicators.

  7. 7

    This question refers to internal political efficacy; no question for external efficacy is available at all three time points.

  8. 8

    Obviously, these changes might reflect the political and economic situation in Belgium in recent years (compare Deschouwer, 2009).

  9. 9

    Therefore, we have serially correlated the error terms of the political activities and political attitudes over time (where appropriate).

  10. 10

    This is partly due to the fact that political interest is measured by a single indicator, while political participation is measured by several indicators, so that measurement error can be taken into account.

  11. 11

    However, as the fit of these models is acceptable, but not good (see online Appendices S1 and S2), another series of models were estimated for which we improved the model fit to see whether these results then still hold.

  12. 12

    Goodness of fit indices for these models can be found in the online Appendix (Model I, Appendices S1 and S2).

  13. 13

    We added an empty observed variable (Finkel, 2007) or alpha-coefficient (Allison, 2009) to the models to control for unobserved heterogeneity. This did not affect our results.

  14. 14

    See online Appendices S3 and S4 for the model fit, and Appendix S5 for the results of the cross-lagged parameters. Full models can be obtained from the authors.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information
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Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information
  • Ellen Quintelier is a postdoctoral researcher of the Research Foundation – Flanders at the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at KU Leuven (Belgium). Her research interest lies in political behaviour, political sociology and comparative politics. More specifically, she focuses on patterns of inequality in political participation and the effect of political socialisation agents and personality on political participation. Previously, she has published in European Union Politics, Political Research Quarterly and Research Papers in Education. Ellen Quintelier, Centre for Political Research, KU Leuven, Belgium; email: ellen.quintelier@soc.kuleuven.be

  • Jan W. van Deth is Professor of Political Science and International Comparative Social Research at the University of Mannheim (Germany). He has published widely in the fields of political culture, social change and comparative research methods. At present he is Head of Department-B of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Corresponding Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and German national coordinator for the European Social Survey. Jan W. van Deth, Department of Political Science, University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany; email: jvdeth@uni-mannheim.de

Supporting Information

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Political Attitudes and Political Participation
  4. Political Participation and Political Attitudes
  5. Research Design and Method
  6. Data and Operationalisation
  7. Descriptives
  8. Relationships between Attitudes and Behaviour
  9. Discussion and Conclusions
  10. References
  11. Biographies
  12. Supporting Information
FilenameFormatSizeDescription
post12097-sup-0001-si.pdf298K

Appendix S1: Chi2 difference tests for autoregressive models – Political participation (Model I).

Appendix S2: Chi2 difference tests for autoregressive models – Political consumption (Model I).

Appendix S3: Chi2 difference tests for autoregressive models – Political participation (Model II).

Appendix S4: Chi2 difference tests for autoregressive models – Political consumption (Model II).

Appendix S5: Relationships between political attitudes and three forms of political participation.

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