Of Attitudes and Engagement: Clarifying the Reciprocal Relationship Between Civic Attitudes and Political Participation


John Gastil; e-mail: jgastil@u.washington.edu


In this essay, we draw on broader psychological theories of the attitude–behavior relationship to postulate specific reciprocal patterns of causality between the civic attitudes and forms of political and civic engagement featured in contemporary political communication research. We then examine the extent of these reciprocal relationships with a 2-wave panel survey of 2,872 Pacific Northwest residents. Spanning the 2004 elections, structural equation modeling of the panel data shows complex reciprocal causal paths between political/civic attitudes (internal and external efficacy and civic pride and faith) and a range of political and civic behaviors (voting, political action, media use, political/community talk, and group involvement). The conclusion suggests how to conceptualize these variables and model their relationships in future research.


Dans cet essai, nous puisons dans les théories psychologiques des relations entre attitudes et comportements pour postuler des schémas réciproques spécifiques de causalité entre les attitudes civiques et les formes d’engagement politique et civique présentées dans la recherche contemporaine en communication politique. Nous examinons ensuite la mesure de ces relations réciproques avec une enquête par panel à deux vagues auprès de 2 872 résidents du Nord-Ouest Pacifique pendant les élections américaines de 2004. Une modélisation par équation structurelle des données du panel montre des enchaînements de causalité réciproques complexes entre les attitudes politiques ou civiques (efficacité interne et externe et fierté et foi civiques) et une gamme de comportements politiques et civiques (exercice du droit de vote, action politique, usage des médias, discussions politiques/communautaires et implication dans des groupes). La conclusion suggère des manières de conceptualiser ces variables et d’offrir des modèles de leurs relations dans la recherche future.


In diesem Aufsatz nutzen wir umfassende psychologische Theorien zur Einstellungs-Verhaltens-Beziehung und postulieren spezifische reziproke Muster der Kausalität zwischen staatsbürgerlicher Einstellungen und Formen politischen und bürgerlichen Engagements, das in der aktuellen Forschung zu politischer Kommunikation eine Rolle spielt. Wir untersuchen das Ausmaß dieser reziproken Beziehungen in einer zweiwelligen Panelumfragestudie mit 2.872 Einwohnern des Nordwestens. Zur Zeit der Wahlen 2004 zeigen Strukturgleichungsmodelle der Paneldaten komplexe reziproke Kausalpfade zwischen politischen/bürgerlichen Einstellungen (internale und externale Selbstwirkamkeit und bürgerlicher Stolz und Glauben) und einer Reihe von politischen und staatsbürgerlichen Verhaltensweisen (Wahlen, politische Aktivität, Mediennutzung, politische Unterhaltungen, Diskussionen in der Gesellschaft und Gruppenbeteiligung). Die Schlussfolgerungen ermöglichen es, diese Variablen konzeptuell zu fassen und ihre Beziehungen für zukünftige Forschung zu modellieren.



En este ensayo, hacemos uso de teorías sicológicas amplias de la relación actitud— comportamiento para postular que las pautas recíprocas específicas de causalidad entre las actitudes cívicas y las formas políticas y el compromiso cívico representados en la investigación contemporánea de la comunicación política. Examinamos entonces la extensión de estas relaciones recíprocas con un panel de dos fases de 2,872 residentes del Pacífico Noroeste. Abarcando las elecciones del 2004, un modelo de ecuación estructural de unos datos de panel mostraron los caminos complejos de la reciprocidad causal entre las actitudes políticas/cívicas (la eficacia interna y externa y el orgullo cívico y la fe) y una gama de comportamientos políticos y cívicos (el votar, la acción política, el uso de los medios, la charla política/comunitaria, y el involucramiento de los grupos). La conclusión sugiere cómo conceptualizar estas variables y modela las relaciones para la investigación futura.


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Virtually all political communication research rests on implicit assumptions about how attitudes and behaviors relate to one another. Research seeking to explain variation in political attitudes often presumes that they drive key behaviors. Naturally, explanation of attitude variation is often sought in communication exposure and attention variables, as in research on media framing, or the overall tone and content of political communication (Aarts & Semetko, 2003; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Moy & Pfau, 2000; Moy & Scheufele, 2000; Patterson, 1994; Valentino, Beckmann, & Buhr, 2001). Occasionally, but to a lesser extent, researchers also construct causal chains in which influence flows in the opposite direction, from key behaviors to associated attitudes (e.g., Morrell, 2005).

Both propositions (that attitudes drive behavior, and conversely that behaviors spawn attitudes) have received ample support in the psychological literature (e.g., Bem, 1972; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). However, references to specific attitude–behavior assumptions in the communication literature, following the traditional assumptions of political psychology, overwhelmingly favor the attitudes-drive-behaviors assumption. In this study, we hope to provoke greater attention to these issues as they relate specifically to research on political efficacy, communication, and civic engagement.

Examining the data from a panel study spanning the 2004 elections through the lenses provided by foundational psychological theories of the attitude–behavior relationship, we hope to shed greater light on processes of reciprocal patterns of causality between efficacy attitudes and various political and communicative behaviors. Specifically, we hypothesize that within the more strategic context of campaigns and elections, attitudes tend to drive behavior and not the other way around, whereas we anticipate a reciprocal attitude–behavior linkage in civic or community-based contexts. In one instance, we even anticipate a mutual reinforcement—with a closely related attitude and behavior, each exerting a causal influence on the other. By theorizing about the deeper mechanisms by which such causal patterns work, and then testing those hypothesized mechanisms through a panel survey design, we hope to contribute to a better integration and the further development of theory and research on the role played by communication in the facilitation of political efficacy and civic engagement, as well as other attitude–behavior connections in the wider communication research literature.

Assumptions beneath the surface

A survey of the literature on communication and civic engagement with an eye toward attitude–behavior assumptions reveals a variety of assumptions about these linkages lurking behind the scenes. The dominant assumption that attitudes drive behavior is evident in most research on political efficacy and trust. Here, the central reference points come from the political science research on participation (Abramson, Aldrich, & Rohde, 1982; Rosenstone & Hanson, 1993; Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995).

These studies helped forge assumptions that attitudes toward political participation drive actual behavior, and that we should study political communication because of its potential to influence these attitudes. In the classic account, the mass media promote a “strategic” interpretation of political actors and the electoral process, which systematically undermines citizen attitudes toward the political system, thereby reducing their active participation in it (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). Beyond the electoral sphere, Moy and Pfau (2000) explicitly cite the relationship between efficacy (within the broader context of political trust) and political participation as one of the principal reasons for concern with declining levels of trust in government since the 1960s, and explore the role played by the mass media in explaining the decline (p. 26).

Another prime example of this approach in the context of political communication research is seen in Aarts and Smetko's (2003) examination of media effects on political attitudes and involvement. Citing conflicting strands of research, one pointing to media malaise and the other pointing to media mobilization, Aarts and Semetko convincingly show (as do Newton, 1999 and Norris, 1996) that the effects of media use on attitudes toward politics and civic engagement are largely mediated by the kinds of media, individuals choose to consume. Despite debates over moderating factors like motivation and content, at the heart of the “malaise versus mobilization” debate (and similar strands of research) lies a clear assumption that the reason we should be concerned about whether news causes cynicism or trust is that these attitudes drive actual participation in civic and political life.

The reverse assumption of behavior driving attitudes, particularly those of efficacy and trust, can be found in the growing literature on public deliberation and discussion (Burkhalter, Gastil, & Kelshaw, 2002; Delli Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004). Much of this research, particularly in its early variants, emphasizes the effects of deliberation on specific political attitudes (opinion change), or increases in knowledge (e.g., Fishkin, 1995). However, a significant portion of research on deliberation also points to effects of the deliberative experience on the extent to which participants feel more confident about their abilities as citizens (Gastil, 2004; Gastil & Dillard, 1999; Morrell, 2005; Smith, 1999).

The implicit linkage in such a research entertains the alternative assumption that certain behaviors are important causal antecedents to feelings of efficacy and attitudes toward fellow citizens. For example, in his research on the relationship between various structures of decision making, including forms of deliberation, Morrell (1999, 2005) specifically explores the argument that somehow in the act of participation with others, particularly in face-to-face settings, citizens acquire feelings of competency and efficacy. Distinguishing situation-specific efficacy from the traditional, more global, efficacy, Morrell (2005) reveals that the relationship between deliberation and efficacy is certainly not as direct and automatic as democratic theorists like Pateman (1970) would have us believe. Nonetheless, Morrell pursues the argument that deliberation can have a positive effect on citizen efficacy, albeit of a context-specific variety.

Even research that takes a much more skeptical approach to deliberation operates from much the same assumption at the level of the attitude–behavior linkage. Describing what they see as Americans' desire for a Stealth Democracy, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002) suggest that as any deliberation worthy of the name involves prolonged discussion and conflict, and as most citizens dislike conflict and a sizeable proportion find themselves relatively less loquacious than those who often come to dominate such discussions, the likely experience of deliberation for most citizens is negative, if anything possibly leaving them with less confidence in the system and themselves.

To be sure, the assumptions that guide the lines of research reviewed here are undoubtedly more complex than this simplified or even caricatured discussion might suggest. Most if not all communication researchers would likely refuse to be categorized as assuming attitudes always or exclusively drive behavior or vice versa. Nevertheless, we contend that it is useful to consider the predominant assumptions in various strands of research, so that their implications may be better understood.

General accounts of the attitude – behavior linkage

Theorizing more broadly than the particular context of civic engagement, the psychological literature provides general explanations for both directions in the attitude–behavior relationship. Indeed, a vast literature takes these issues as a point of central concern, rather than simply as background to more specific questions. We begin, however, with consideration of two archetypical accounts of the attitude–behavior linkage that can provide us with an initial set of tools for theorizing possible relationships between civic attitudes and behaviors.

The strongest foundation for the dominant assumption of attitudes-to-behavior comes from the work of Ajzen and Fishbein (1980) and Fishbein and Ajzen (1975), which is still well known in the general communication literature and cited occasionally within the political communication literature (e.g., McLeod et al., 1999). In their “belief, attitude, intention, behavior” model, Ajzen and Fishbein outline a precise causal pathway in which attitudes are indirect but powerful antecedents of behavior. In the first part, individuals' beliefs form the basic stock of information that produces individual attitudes toward various objects. On the basis of these attitudes, individuals are then stipulated to form predispositions, creating all important intentions with respect to the object domain. These attitudes in turn lead to behaviors (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). Even more appropriately for our research context, Ajzen's (1991) later amendment to the theory made it clear that self-efficacy plays a key role in the attitude–behavior link.

In the case of the general narrative of research on the effects of media on political efficacy, we may interpret the process as follows. Information from media sources, accounts of the candidates and their campaigns, for example, lead citizens to develop a set of beliefs about the political system and their place within it (e.g., “politics is a game”). On the basis of these beliefs, negative (or positive) attitudes toward politics form, thereby creating corresponding sets of intentions toward participation, which in turn drive actual participation.

The other side of the attitude–behavior dynamic is buttressed by Bem's (1972) self-perception theory. This theory elegantly stipulates an opposing narrative of the attitude–behavior linkage that can be summarized in two simple postulates. The first is that “individuals come to ‘know’ their own attitudes partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behavior and/or the circumstances in which this behavior occurs” (Bem, 1972, p. 5). Thus, individuals derive their attitudes from a deductive reasoning process in which the input is their behavior; judgments about how one feels are determined by observations of how he or she acts. The second postulate is that “to the extent that internal cues are weak, ambiguous, or uninterpretable, the individual is functionally in the same position as an outside observer who must necessarily rely upon those same external cues to infer the individual's inner states” (Bem, 1972, p. 5). Thus self-perception theory offers us a disarmingly simple, yet quite accurate account of the formation of many attitudes, including political attitudes (e.g., Albarracin & Wyer, 2000; Burden & Greene 2000).

In the case of civic engagement and behavior, citizens may ask themselves, “What must my attitude toward participation be if I am willing to participate in these ways, under these circumstances?” On this account, we may then think about processes by which either positive or negative experiences with various forms of deliberation and other kinds of participatory behavior may translate into feelings of efficacy and trust.

Reciprocal relations between behaviors and attitudes

Given the research discussed earlier on the antecedents and consequences of feelings of efficacy and trust, it is natural to assume that both of these causal processes are likely at work in the public sphere at any given time. The possibility of reciprocal causal structures surrounding political efficacy is not new. Nearly a decade ago, Bandura (1997) called for a “comprehensive research effort” to understand the “determinants, mechanisms, and outcomes” of efficacy (p. 428). Indeed, while noting the effects of efficacy on political behavior, Bandura further theorized that the greatest benefits to research on efficacy would come from explorations of its causal antecedents, especially those found in individuals' experiences with various group and communicative processes. A handful of researchers have undertaken specific exploration of reciprocal relationships between attitudes toward civic engagement and political participation (Finkel, 1985; Stenner-Day & Fischle, 1992).

However, this small body of research has produced mixed findings and examined a very limited number of variables. Perhaps the first to explore this relationship fully with a panel design was Finkel (1985). Using conventional political science measures of internal and external political efficacy, as well as voting and a broader set of campaign participation variables, Finkel documented mixed support for a reciprocal causal structure surrounding efficacy. Though there was support for bidirectional causality between acts of participation and feelings of external efficacy, Finkel found only a unidirectional relationship with respect to internal efficacy, consistent with our traditional understanding of attitudes of personal efficacy as predictors of participation. Indeed, “participation, in whatever form, was not seen as influencing the individual's own self-concept, but rather as ‘developing’ attitudes about the responsiveness of the political authorities or political system.” (Finkel, 1985, p. 907).

More recently, Stenner-Day and Fischle (1992) conducted a similar investigation, using Australia's National Social Science Survey data from 1984 and employing a slightly wider array of variables including not only conventional and partisan forms of political participation, but also measures of extremist political participation and community activism. Leaving aside some of the more complex relations uncovered in this study, it is notable that with respect to conventional participation and partisan activism, the findings are a mirror image of Finkel's (1985) results. Rather than a one-way path from internal efficacy to participation, Stenner-Day and Fischle report unidirectional paths from conventional participation and partisan activism toward internal efficacy, but not external efficacy.

A reciprocal model of civic attitudes and behaviors

The earlier theoretical discussion provides plausible accounts for many potential connections—including some reciprocal relationships—between civic attitudes and behaviors. At this juncture, we believe that research on these relationships could substantially benefit from a more comprehensive approach to exploring the circumstances under which different kinds of connections are more, or less, plausible. To do so, researchers need to investigate a broader set of attitudes, reaching beyond political efficacy to consider other beliefs and evaluations potentially linked to a wide range of civic behaviors. With this larger set of attitudes and behaviors in hand, we then need to develop a systematic theoretical account for the causal relationships between civic attitudes and behaviors. Such a model would explain, parsimoniously, why some attitudes shape behavior, why some behaviors shape attitudes, and why some attitudes and behaviors mutually reinforce one another.

Widening the range of attitudes and behaviors

Before advancing a tentative theoretical model, we suggest the addition of two attitudes to complement internal and external efficacy. The two efficacy concepts refer to personal confidence in one's own political acumen and faith in the system's responsiveness to competent strategic action. In the less agonistic world of community involvement, we suggest two somewhat parallel concepts—a personal sense of pride in one's civic responsibility along with one's faith in the responsibility of fellow citizens. We call these civic pride and civic faith, respectively, and they provide a community-oriented parallel to the conventional notions of internal and external political efficacy. These concepts are an original formulation, though they bear resemblance to Finkel, Muller, and Opp's (1989) notions of a duty to participate and belief in the “unity principle” (i.e., a belief that effectiveness requires full participation or group unity).

Civic pride is confidence that one takes one's community and civic responsibilities seriously, as opposed to believing that one has no civic duties or fulfills them only out of reluctant obligation. Instilling (and drawing on) civic pride is often the aim of public engagement processes, such as when Denhardt and Denhardt (2000) write, “Through involvement in programs of civic education and by developing a broad range of civic leaders, government can stimulate a renewed sense of civic pride and civic responsibility.” Further, they expect that such civic pride entails “a greater willingness to be involved” in collaborative governance and community building (p. 555).

The companion of civic pride is civic faith, the belief that others' will, in the same way, act responsibly. Its opposite is the belief that other community members and fellow citizens will not make any necessary effort, let alone sacrifices for the public good. Whereas external efficacy concerns one's perception that political institutions are responsive, civic faith represents the belief that individual citizens are responsible and can be counted on to vote during elections and otherwise participate in public life for the sake of their community or nation. Barber (2004), for example, celebrates such faith as the only “available social glue” to tie together a pluralistic civil society that has few religious convictions or cultural beliefs shared in common (p. 66). Faith may prompt us to play an active role in public life by alleviating any fears that were we to act, we would act alone and in vain.

In addition to complementing political efficacy with civic attitudes, we look beyond voting and more traditional conceptions of political participation to consider a broader set of civic counterparts. As communication scholars, we have particular interest in looking at the wider range of ways in which we communicate in politics and community life. First, the range of behaviors we consider herein includes a set of three strategic behaviors: voting (likely the most formal, institutionalized means of expression), political/campaign involvement (attending rallies or other events and/or volunteering on behalf of political causes), and public affairs media use. We call these the set of strategic behaviors because they are all oriented toward effective political engagement—from gathering information through the media, to influencing others' votes, to casting one's own ballot.

As a contrast to these behaviors, we wish to also consider highly interactive civic behaviors celebrated in the literature on deliberative democracy (Delli Carpini et al., 2004; Mutz, 2006; Ryfe, 2002). First, we add the taken-for-granted practice of everyday conversations and discussions on local community issues and public affairs. Researchers have begun to devote greater attention to the practice of informal conversation and discussion (Huckfeldt, Johnson, & Sprague, 2004; Moy & Gastil, 2006; Mutz, 2006), and even if Schudson (1997) is right that it is not “the soul of democracy,” it is still an important part of democratic public life (Barber, 1984). Second, we wish to consider involvement in cultural and community groups, as group engagement has become a paramount concern among those studying civic engagement (Putnam, 2000) and public deliberation (Ryfe, 2006). Together with conversation, participation in community and cultural groups falls outside the strategic behavior category and constitutes a form of highly interactive, more local and less institutionalized civic engagement.


With the aid of the psychological concepts explicated earlier, we may now think more specifically about how the variables in this more inclusive set of political and civic engagement attitudes and behaviors may relate to one another, qua attitudes and behaviors. In doing so, we draw on Fazio's contributions to scholarship on attitude–behavior relationships (Fazio, 1995; Fazio & Williams, 1986), as well as the substantive research discussed earlier relating to the classic scholarship on political efficacy and more recent work on deliberation. In practical terms, this leads to a focus on qualitative differences between key variable groupings (particularly between different kinds of political or civic behaviors) to predict whether the most apt description is likely to be the belief-attitude-intention account, the self-perception model, or some combination thereof.

The first set of hypotheses (H1) we advance grows from the empirical and theoretical kinship between the classic political efficacy variables (external and internal efficacy) and those political behaviors we have earlier described as strategic (voting, political action, and media use). As noted earlier, there is ample empirical support for political efficacy as a predictor of political participation. What is of concern to us, however, is not so much that these variables share an orientation to the same political context (typically campaigns and elections), but rather the nature of participation in that context. Specifically, H1 derives from the nature of participation in campaigns and elections, where individuals are typically expected to collect information on various options, form a private opinion, and then express it through partisan campaigns and, ultimately, at the ballot box. As Fazio and Williams (1986) argue, this is “most likely the result of a controlled process in which individuals reflect and arrive at a behavioral intention” (p. 512). Moreover, because this enterprise culminates in the aggregation of private ballots by neutral agents, and the process of opinion formation is largely private, we contend that the strategic behaviors considered here are experienced relatively less directly than political talk or civic group involvement. Thus, opportunities for behavioral input into the attitude formation process are likely fewer (Fazio, 1995). We thus hypothesize that the causal relationships that connect these variables point principally from attitudes to behavior. After all, the behaviors in question are relatively individualized, and the relationship between one's individual behavior and the final outcome is famously minute (Downs, 1957), so we expect that the behavioral feedback into attitudes is too weak to detect, if at all it exists.

H1: External and internal efficacy at time 1 (T1) will be positively related to strategic political behavior (voting, political action, and media use) at time 2 (T2).

The second set of hypotheses (H2) principally concerns those variables that we have incorporated to broaden the range of civic attitudes and behaviors that researchers consider. Specifically, H2 focuses on the more community-oriented attitudes (civic pride and civic faith) and behaviors (participation in political talk, community talk, and group involvement). Again, our concern is less that these variables share a common context, but it is about the nature of that context. In this case, the defining feature of the more community-oriented context is the sense in which behavior is more communicatively anchored in collective processes—plausibly quasi-deliberative processes (Gastil, 2008; Mutz, 2006)—of meaning making and social action. Unlike the more or less one-way transmission of voter preferences through balloting or, for example, placing a sign in one's yard, interaction with others in political talk or participation in the formal structures of community groups involves a much more dynamic exchange. In the terms of self-perception theory, such an interaction provides individuals with more opportunities to observe themselves not just in any acts of participation, but in communal acts that require, and can therefore engender, relatively more feelings of trust in one's fellows. These qualities also make the experience of these behaviors more direct and thus are more likely to produce attitudes that will, in turn, more strongly predict subsequent related behaviors (Fazio, 1995). Thus, H2 posits reciprocal relationships between community-oriented attitudes and behavior.

H2a: Civic pride and civic faith at T1 will be positively related to political/community talk and group involvement at T2.

H2b: Political/community talk and group involvement at T1 will be positively related to civic pride and civic faith at T2.

The study that follows will test each of these hypotheses, but we will also explore all other possible relationships among the attitudes and behaviors described herein. In this way, our study will not only confirm or disconfirm the particular predictions above but also explore the other potential reciprocal relationships.

Study design and methods

To test these hypotheses, we designed a two-wave panel study (Finkel, 1995) to tease apart the complex attitude–behavior interrelationships. We also chose a research time, place, and population likely to experience considerable opportunities for political and civic action and contemplation between the two panel waves. First, our research spaced the panel waves before and after the 2004 election: The Wave 1 survey established baseline measures for engagement, whereas the Wave 2 survey measures the extent of engagement during a primary and general election replete with opportunities for engagement. Second, the geographic location of this study was a community (King County, WA) known for both high voter turnout (83% of registered voters in 2004) and vocal protest, such as during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The county also has active cultural and neighborhood associations and events that provide ongoing opportunities for civic and community engagement. Third, the present study draws its sample from those persons who have reported for jury service—a study population that is likely to have at least minimal levels of civic engagement.


Two waves of survey data were collected from 2,872 residents of King County who reported for jury service between February 10, 2004 and August, 20, 2004.1 Fifty-four percent of the participants were female, and 90% were White, with 5.5% Asian-American, 1.7% African American, 1.5% Native American, and 1.2% Hispanic. The median educational level was a college degree (B.A., B.S., or A.B.), with 29.7% having less formal education and 37.4% having more. The median age was 50, with 50% of respondents between 40 and 58 years of age. The work status of the respondents included 62.7% working full-time, 14.8% retired, 9.9% working temporary or part-time jobs, 6.2% self-identified as “homemaker,” 3.4% unemployed, and 3.0% enrolled as students.

For the structural equation models (SEMs), we reduced the sample size by removing 489 cases that were missing a substantial portion of their data. (Most of these were missing exact-matching voting records, as described below.) The remaining 2,383 cases had the same general characteristics as the full sample but were also ideal for data imputation, with only one of the variables (ethnicity) missing in more than 5% of all cases. Missing values were replaced using the expectation maximization (EM) method in SPSS with normal distribution.

The large sample used in this study was necessary to ensure adequate statistical power. Recall that Finkel (1985) had found reciprocal effect sizes that Cohen (1988) would label as “small” (i.e., r≤ .10). With a two-tailed alpha of .05, the sample used herein had a relatively high power for even the smaller population effect sizes (e.g., power of .99 for r = .10 and higher; power of .83 for r = .06).


Wave 1 survey

During the study period, researchers attempted to approach every person who signed in for jury duty to request their voluntary participation in a study on “community life.” This first survey was administered after jury orientation but before jurors had been sent to courtrooms, with a response rate of 78% and a cooperation rate of approximately 81% (4% of those reporting to service were sent to courtrooms before research staff could administer the survey).

Wave 2 survey

Those who responded in Wave 1 were contacted again in November 2004, after the completion of the 2004 primary and general elections. Respondents were invited to complete a follow-up survey on paper or online. A repeated-contact design (Dillman, 1999) sent postcards, up to two survey booklets, reminders, and thank you cards to potential respondents. Seventy-three percent of those who were contacted again via a valid e-mail or mailing address returned a completed survey. The median lag time between receiving and returning the survey was 2 weeks.2


Political attitudes and behaviors

Standard survey items from the National Election Study and General Social Survey were used to measure internal efficacy, external efficacy, and political participation. Original items were developed to measure civic pride and civic faith, along with public affairs media use, political discussion, and active participation in a wider array of community groups and associations. In total, each of the two surveys included 12 attitude items (three for each of four attitudes) and 16 participation items (four for each of four scales). A confirmatory factor analysis with varimax rotation yielded results consistent with this set of four attitudinal and four behavioral variables, and all item wordings are in Appendix.

Table 1 provides means and standard deviations for each of the attitude and participation measures in Waves 1 and 2. The table shows that over the course of the study, there was a significant change (p < .001) in the mean score of every attitudinal and behavioral measure except internal efficacy, which was consistent with the expectation given the timing of the waves in relation to the 2004 election. The changes reflected significant increases in participation and civic faith, along with significant decreases in respondents' levels of external efficacy and civic pride. The table also shows that scale reliability is low for some measures, particularly for the novel attitudinal measures and group involvement. Though we deploy a statistical method (structural equation modeling) that can help correct for measurement error, these lower alphas warn against overinterpreting nonsignificant findings for these variables.

Table 1.  Scale Means, Standard Deviations, and Mean Differences Across Waves 1 and 2 for Attitudinal and Behavioral Measures
 Wave 1Wave 2M Diff.
  1. Note: Minimum N = 2,811.

  2. **p < .01 (two-tailed) from t-test comparisons of means. All scales range from 1 (low) to 5 (high).

Political/civic attitudes
Internal efficacy.863.75.773.76.75.013
External efficacy.663.28.713.20.72−.078**
Civic pride.653.85.603.75.60−.106**
Civic faith.443.00.633.12.62.112**
Political/civic behaviors
Political action.831.58.621.63.67.051**
Public affairs media use.573.78.713.81.68.036**
Political/community talk.753.13.893.23.89.110**
Civic group involvement.551.66.571.63.56.032**

Control variables

Additional survey items measured were ethnicity, sex, age, educational level, partisanship, and political knowledge. The partisanship measure was constructed in two steps: We first averaged scores on a standard 7-point liberal/conservative item with responses to a 7-point scale created by merging items asking for party identity, then the strength of identification (interitem r = .76); then, we recoded this scale such that it measured one's degree of partisan strength (i.e., the absolute distance from the scale midpoint). Political knowledge was measured as the number of correct answers to a five-item set of factual questions about federal, state, and local politics/government (see Appendix). Finally, we controlled for the variation in lag time (days) between the completion of Wave 1 and 2 surveys.

Voter history

Participation in elections was measured separately. For 81% of the survey respondents, we were able to match each study participant's full name and address with a unique individual in the official King County voter registration database, which had complete voting histories from 2000 to 2004, including all regular countywide primaries, Presidential primaries, and general elections. Average voting rates were 63% (SD=.32) from 2000 to 2003 (before Wave 1) and average rates were 84% (SD=.27) for the 2004 primary and general elections.


Preliminary analyses consisted of partial correlations to confirm the presumed existence of cross-sectional associations among the attitudes and behaviors measured herein. Table 2 shows that controlling for demographics, partisanships, and political knowledge, all but three of the relationships between the four attitudinal and five behavioral measures were statistically significant in the Wave 1 sample. All three nonsignificant partial correlations reflected the weak associations between behaviors and civic faith. This simply confirms that the attitudinal and behavioral variables are, as expected, related, which leads to the focus of the analysis regarding the causal directions underlying these cross-sectional correlations.

Table 2.  Partial Correlations Between Wave 1 Political Attitudes and Behaviors After Controlling for Demographics, Partisanship, and Political Knowledge
Political/Civic BehaviorPolitical/Civic Attitude
Internal EfficacyExternal EfficacyCivic PrideCivic Faith
  1. Note: Minimum N = 2,657 for survey measures, 2,325 for voting records.

  2. *p < .05.

  3. **p < .01 (two-tailed).

Political action.33**.13**.26**−.04*
Public affairs media use.47**.13**.23**.05*
Political/community talk.44**.13**.34**−.03
Civic group involvement.18**.08**.33**.01
Voting 2000–2003.13**.07**.17**−.02

Main hypothesis tests

Our main test assessed the hypothesized attitude–behavior relationships in a single SEM linking Wave 1 attitudes with Wave 2 behaviors and Wave 1 behaviors with Wave 2 attitudes, as explained in Hypotheses 1 and 2. Additional structural relationships in this first model included covariance among all Wave 1 variables, including the aforementioned controls, and paths to each Wave 2 variable from each control plus its Wave 1 counterpart (i.e., linking Wave 1 external efficacy to Wave 2 external efficacy).

Using SPSS-Amos 17 SEM software, all of the relevant attitudes and behaviors were treated as latent variables with multiple operational indicators, with the exception of Wave 1 and 2 voting rates. This latent variable approach was particularly helpful in the present study, in which only three or four items could be used to measure key variables, because SEM takes into account measurement error when estimating causal relationships. When measures are taken over multiple panel waves, it is possible to remove considerable bias from estimated paths between latent variables by incorporating correlations between each item's measurement errors at two points in time while simultaneously specifying the measurement model and structural effects (Finkel, 1995).

The fit of this initial model was assessed following the recommendations of Holbert and Stephenson (2002, 2008). Besides reporting the overall model χ2, they recommend using the Standardized Root Mean Square Residual (SRMR) in conjunction with the Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) and a comparative fit index (CFI). Ideally, a model should have an SRMR score below .09, an RMSEA below .06, and a CFI above .95. The hypothesized model met these standards sufficiently to allow interpretation (SRMR = .050, RMSEA = .035, and CFI = .920), with a χ2 = 6610.8 (df = 1656, p < .001), though the CFI suggests a less-than-desirable incremental model fit.

Some—but not all—of the specific hypothesized paths, however, reached significance. With regard to Hypothesis 1, external efficacy had no effects on strategic political behaviors (voting, political action, and media use). Wave 1 internal efficacy, however, did have significant positive relationships with political action (b = .073, SE = .022, p < .001) and media use (b = .225, SE = .050, p < .001). The oft-cited causal path from internal efficacy to voting (e.g., Finkel, 1985; Verba et al., 1995) did not reach significance with a one-tailed directional test (b = .037, SE = .010, p = .062).

The second set of hypotheses posited reciprocal relationships between civic pride and faith, on the one hand, and political/community talk and civic group involvement, on the other. This pattern emerged for one pairing of variables—civic pride and political/community talk. In this case, Wave 1 pride promoted greater Wave 2 talk (b = .065, SE = .039, p = .008), and Wave 1 talk positively reinforced Wave 2 pride (b = .139, SE = .023, p < .001). The only other significant causal path was from Wave 1 group involvement to Wave 2 (b = .127, SE = .020, p < .001). The other five paths in Hypothesis 2a and 2b were nonsignificant.

An alternative model: Full reciprocation

Although the hypothesized model fits the data, in terms of overall statistical measures, we thought it prudent to also generate an alternative model. Rather than incrementally adjusting our hypothesized model, we chose to move directly to one that included the full set of possible paths from attitudes to behaviors and vice versa. As we advised earlier, there exists little theoretical work on the potential reciprocal relationships in civic and political engagement, so exploring the full range of such connections could prove fruitful to future theoretical work.

This second model tested all of the potential associations simultaneously in a single SEM linking Wave 1 attitudes with Wave 2 behaviors and Wave 1 behaviors with Wave 2 attitudes. As earlier, additional structural relationships included covariance among all Wave 1 variables, paths from each Wave 1 variable to its Wave 2 counterpart, and the same paths for the control variables. The fit statistics for this model were nearly identical to those of the hypothesized one (SRMR = .050, RMSEA = .036, and CFI = .921), with a χ2 = 6538.2 (df = 1630, p < .001), again with the incremental fit indicator (CFI) falling below the .95 threshold. Formally testing the change in overall fit between this model and the hypothesized one nested within it, the χ2-difference test shows a reduction in χ2 estimates of 72.6, which exceeds the p = .001 critical value associated with 26 degrees of freedom (i.e., the difference in df between the models; see Holbert & Stephenson, 2008, p. 196).

From this model, Table 3 shows the full array of paths between civic and political attitudes and behaviors. This model includes four of the same paths found in the original model, with a reciprocal relationship between civic pride and political/community talk, a significant path from group involvement to civic pride, and a positive link from internal efficacy to political action. The links from internal efficacy to voting and media use, however, do not reach significance.

Table 3.  Standardized Path Coefficients (and Standard Errors) From Wave 1 Attitudes and Behaviors to Wave 2 Attitudes and Behaviors
Political/Civic BehaviorPolitical/Civic Attitude
Internal EfficacyExternal EfficacyCivic PrideCivic Faith
  1. Note: N = 2383.

  2. p < .10.

  3. *p < .05.

  4. **p < .01. (two-tailed).

Political action
W1 Att. → W3 Beh..07 (.025)**<.01 (.025)< .01 (.030)−.01 (.046)
W1 Beh. → W3 Att.−.01 (.022)−.07 (.033)*−.01 (.027)−.10 (.023)**
Public affairs media use
W1 Att. → W3 Beh.−.04 (.059)−.06 (.026)*.05 (.031).01 (.047)
W1 Beh. → W3 Att..24 (.059)**.04 (.047).07 (.038).07 (.032)
Voting rate
W1 Att. → W3 Beh..02 (.013).03 (.013).01 (.016)−.06 (.024)*
W1 Beh. → W3 Att.−.01 (.029)−.01 (.047).03 (.038).03 (.032)
Political/community talk
W1 Att. → W3 Beh..01 (.036)−.04 (.034).06 (.042).02 (.062)
W1 Beh. → W3 Att..09 (.026)**<.01 (.040).12 (.033)**.02 (.027)
Civic group involvement
W1 Att. → W3 Beh..02 (.036).05 (.038)−.07 (.049)−.02 (.069)
W1 Beh. → W3 Att.−.02 (.015).01 (.025).13 (.021)**.01 (.017)

One striking finding in relation to the original hypotheses is that, with two-tailed significance tests, one causal association ran opposite to prediction: External efficacy in Wave 1 reduced media use in Wave 2 (b = −.06, SE = .026, p = .039). (Though not reaching significance, Wave 1 civic pride also tended to reduce Wave 2 group involvement, b = −.07, SE = .049, p = .063.) Three additional negative associations also appeared in this model: Wave 1 civic faith had a negative association with Wave 2 voting (b = −.06, SE = .024, p = .036), and Wave 1 political action had negative associations with Wave 2 measures for both civic faith (b = −.10, SE = .023, p = .006) and external efficacy (b = −.07, SE = .033, p = .018).

The other significant or nearly significant paths also ran counter to original hypotheses but were all positive associations, consistent with the general expectation of positive reinforcement between the civic attitudes and behaviors measured herein. From Wave 1 to 2, political/community talk had a positive path from Wave 1 to 2 toward internal efficacy (b = .09, SE = .026, two-tailed p = .005), civic pride had a significant effect on media use (b = .05, SE = .031, p = .059), and media use had a significant path to internal efficacy (b = .24, SE = .059, p < .001). The latter finding was striking, as it reversed the hypothesized causal direction, with media use boosting efficacy, rather than vice versa.


The most obvious general insight from the findings presented here is that civic and political attitudes, as hypothesized, have causal effects on behavior, though the reverse appears true even for the efficacy variables that we expected to shape behavior, rather than vice versa. Attitudes about one's competence in political and community arenas are important predictors of civic and political participation. Moreover, individuals' experiences with various elements of public engagement, including the most communicative aspects of public life, exert tangible force on the same attitudes that are also believed to predict their participation in the first place. Thus, our findings can be viewed as a confirmation and extension of Stenner-Day and Fischle's (1992) reciprocal findings and a qualification of Finkel's (1985) skepticism of reciprocal effects.

A second implication of our study concerns the utility of classic models of the attitude behavior linkage in understanding contemporary questions of political communication research. Given the dominance of the attitude-to-behavior model, we will focus our discussion here on the value of Bem's (1972) self-perception theory. Although relatively simple and uncomplicated, we believe that this often overlooked theoretical model provides a compelling narrative explanation for not only the relationships between participation and efficacy observed in our data but also potentially a variety of other phenomena of interest to communication researchers as well. In particular, the self-perception model appears particularly suited to understanding the effects of a participatory communication medium like the Internet, where depending on the level of interactivity present in a given web environment, exposure to communication content is very often essentially a behavior in which the individual participates him or herself (Kerbel & Bloom, 2005; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001; Warnick, Xenos, Endres, & Gastil, 2005). Making sense of such effects in this way, we believe, holds the potential to help specify in greater detail the critical mechanisms at work in a variety of patterns of media effects.

The specific substantive findings of our analysis not only offer some validation of our initial hypotheses but also go farther. In our original model, internal efficacy did prove predictive of strategic political behavior, and there was the expected reciprocal relationship between civic pride and community/political talk. The first of these findings was consistent with our expectation that individual, strategic political engagement would depend on one's sense of efficacy as a political actor. The second finding fits with our notion that highly interactive, communal behavior would have a mutually reinforcing relationship with a sense of one's own and other community members' civic responsibility. The lack of significant findings for the other variables in these hypotheses (external efficacy, civic faith, and group involvement) may suggest the need to generate more refined models, which may limit the connections to these variables or, particularly in the case of civic attitudes, reassess their measurement.

With an eye toward future theory and research, the findings of our secondary SEM may suggest some fruitful lines of inquiry. Figure 1 summarizes the main effects found in this model, including all the significant positive paths, plus the negative paths that met the significance threshold for a two-tailed alpha. On the right-hand side, the figure groups behaviors into the same theoretical categories that we suggested earlier—strategic politics and community engagement, though public affairs media use now sits between these two categories. On the left-hand side, however, attitudes couple based on their internal versus external orientation: Internal efficacy and civic pride represent perceptions of one's own behavior and traits, whereas external efficacy and civic faith constitute perceptions of institutional and other people's behavior. This grouping produces an elegant result: Internal attitudes and community behaviors all generate positive associations, whereas external and strategic political actions generate only negative associations.

Figure 1.

Summary of significant directional and reciprocal relationships between political and civic attitudes and behaviors (standardized regression weights).

The former paths fit with general expectation of mutual reinforcement between civic/political behaviors and attitudes, whereas the latter results require explanation. If these findings prove robust in future research, it might suggest that strategic political engagement and media use depend on and reinforce a degree of skepticism about one's fellows and public institutions. The negative findings in Figure 1 fit this interpretation thus: Lesser the faith one has in the civic capacity of one's fellows, more pressed one feels to get out and vote; the less responsive (and responsible) one perceives institutions to be, the more important one believes it is to stay informed about public affairs; and the more one engages in politics, the more one comes to have doubts about the responsibility and responsiveness of fellow citizens and institutions. The value of a modicum of public skepticism in democracy has been noted by both political theorists (Barber, 1984) and media scholars (Moy & Pfau, 2000), and our findings suggest one way this relationship might manifest itself.

If future research validates these revised groupings of attitudes and behaviors, it might ultimately prove fruitful to pursue second-order factors (Holbert & Stephenson, 2008). In the interest of parsimony, for instance, we might find that the strategic politics versus community engagement distinction not only helps categorize variables but actually represents a higher-order latent variable. The same may be true for one or the other of our groupings of attitudes. This may reveal straightforward relationships among the second-order variables that give us a more powerful model than we can obtain when drawing paths among a scattering of variables.

Doing so, however, will require more confidence than we have at present in how to group the wide array of civic, community, and political attitudes and behaviors. Even with the addition of the results presented herein, we believe that there are simply not enough studies concerning these causal structures. Just as Bandura (1997) has called for a more comprehensive understanding of the causes and effects of efficacy, communication researchers should continue to advance our theoretical knowledge of how civic attitudes and communication behaviors interrelate. Our results suggest that it is not enough to simply say that they are mutually reinforcing, as Burkhalter et al. (2002) suggest in the case of political deliberation. To the contrary, our work suggests that complex and varied relationships exist between attitudes and behaviors in both civic and political life.

We do not mean to suggest that all political communication research must adopt the panel design or undertake other efforts to tease out causal directions between attitudes and behaviors. In those cases where tests of directionality are not possible (e.g., Kwak, Shah, & Holbert, 2004; Moy & Gastil, 2006), it is important to recognize the limitations of causal claims. Last but not the least, one must look more closely at the particular attitudes and behaviors in question to hazard a guess about casual direction. Research such as ours might suggest the likely causation in such cases, but only if one recognizes that there is no default directionality that can be generalized across the full range of civic attitudes and behaviors.

Taken together, we believe these insights demonstrate the importance of future research investigating, in the greatest detail possible, the mechanisms that underlie the complex causal forces at work in the relationship between citizens, each other, and processes of communication. Even as communication itself changes through the advent of new technologies, behavior and attitudes remain relatively stable constructs, and basic theories of how the two interrelate continue to be of use in understanding how our civic beliefs and behaviors mutually influence one another. In the end, such knowledge will help us understand the communicative practices and attitudes that sustain—or potentially undermine—engaged democratic citizenship.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 0318513. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. For principal assistance with the design of this study and the collection of data, thanks go to Perry Deess, Phil Weiser, Jay Leighter, Tina Gall, Rachel Nez, and Ray Calluori. Thanks also to the judges and staff at the Seattle Municipal Court and King County Court for facilitating our access to the jury pool. For special assistance with data analysis and research methods, thanks go to Tim Pasch and anonymous reviewers.


  • 1

    The data for this study came from a three-wave panel study of people who reported for jury duty. Herein, we reference the data provided in the first and last wave of that study—surveys respondents before and after the 2004 U.S. general election, hereafter referred to as simply Waves 1 and 2. (We do not report data from the second wave, which recorded jurors' reflections and attitudes immediately after jury service.) In addition, for reasons unrelated to the present study, this courthouse sample was augmented by a random countywide sample of registered voters who were contacted by mail. The latter group is also included in this study. Wave 1 response rate for the registered voter sample was 25%, with a follow-up response rate of 79% in Wave 2. (Comparison of findings from the juror vs. voter subsamples yielded no significant differences.)

  • 2

    Both surveys included additional questions not referenced in this study. Complete survey instruments and codebooks are available from the first author. Comparison of findings from the paper versus online surveys yielded no significant differences.


Appendix: Survey measures

Political attitudes

Each of the attitude items had a corresponding 5-point Likert-type scale, labeled as follows: strongly disagree = 1, disagree = 2, neutral = 3, agree = 4, and strongly agree = 5.

Internal efficacy
  • 1I have a pretty good understanding of the important issues facing this country.
  • 2I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics and community affairs.
  • 3I think I am better informed about politics and government that most people.
External efficacy
  • 1People like me don't have any say about what the government does. (reversed)
  • 2Under our form of government, the people have the final say about how the country is run, no matter who is in office.
  • 3There are many legal ways for citizens to successfully influence what government does.
Civic pride
  • 1I often fail to do my part to make my local community a good place to live. (reversed)
  • 2I take seriously my responsibilities as a citizen.
  • 3People like me play an important role in the life of my community.
Civic faith
  • 1Americans always do their part to try to make their local community a better place to live.
  • 2Few Americans consider voting in elections to be an important civic duty. (reversed)
  • 3When asked to do their part, most American citizens will make sacrifices on behalf of the nation.

Political participation measures

Political action
  • 1PI_ATEN: During the past 6 months, how often did you attend political meetings, rallies, speeches, or dinners?
  • 1   Never
  • 2   Once or twice
  • 3   Three or four times
  • 4   Five or more
  •   -97 Don't know

  • 2PI_VOL: During the past 6 months, how often did you do an hour or more of volunteer work for a political cause, a political party, a candidate, or an initiative campaign?
  • 1   Never
  • 2   Less than once a month
  • 3   Monthly
  • 4   Weekly
  • 5   More than once a week
  •   -97 Don't know

  • 3GP_POL: During the past 6 months, how active have you been in political groups (e.g., political parties or interest groups promoting a particular cause or point of view on an issue), including attending meetings, doing volunteer work, or participating in other activities?
  • 1   I have Not been involved at all in such groups.
  • 2   I have occasionally participated in group activities.
  • 3   I have often participated in group activities.
  • 4   I have become so active that I am now an organizer, officer, or other important member of this group.
Public affairs media use
  • 1PI_INTR_REV (reversed): Some people seem to follow what's going on in government and public affairs most of the time, whether there's an election going on or not. Others aren't that interested. Would you say you follow what's going on in government and public affairs most of the time, some of the time, only now and then, or hardly at all?
  • 4   Most of the time
  • 3   Some of the time
  • 2   Only now and then
  • 1   Hardly at all
  • 2TVNEWS: During the past 6 months, how often did you learn about politics and public affairs watching television news programs?
  • 1   Never
  • 2   Less than once a week
  • 3   Once or twice a week
  • 4   Nearly every day
  • 5   Every day
  •   -97 Don't know

  • 3PRNTNEW: During the past 6 months, how often did you learn about politics and public affairs reading news in magazines, in newspapers, or on Internet websites?[same response scale as TVNEWS]
  • 4RADIO: During the past 6 months, how often did you learn about politics and public affairs listening to the news on the radio?[same response scale as TVNEWS]
Political and community talk
  • 1PI_TALK: During the past 6 months, how often have you talked to someone to change their mind about a political issue, a candidate, or a ballot initiative?
  • 1   Never
  • 2   Less than once a month
  • 3   Monthly
  • 4   Weekly
  • 5   More than once a week
  •   -97 Don't know

  • 2PI_LERN: During the past 6 months, how often have you talked to people to learn more about a political issue, a candidate, or a ballot initiative?[same response scale as PI_TALK]
  • 3CL_INTR: Thinking about your local community, how interested are you in local community politics and local community affairs?
  • 1   Not Interested
  • 2   Somewhat Interested
  • 3   Very Interested
  •   -97 Don't know

  • 4CL_TALK: During the past 6 months, how often have you discussed local community affairs with other members of your community?
  • 1   Never
  • 2   Less than once a month
  • 3   Monthly
  • 4   Weekly
  • 5   More than once a week
  •   -97 Don't know

Civic group involvement
  • 1GP_CULT: cultural organizations (e.g., museum, symphony, public radio or television)
  • 1   I have NOT been involved at all in such groups.
  • 2   I have occasionally participated in group activities.
  • 3   I have often participated in group activities.
  • 4   I have become so active that I am now an organizer, officer, or other important member of this group.
  • 2GP_EDUC: educational institutions (e.g., school, college, PTA, alumni organization)[same phrasing for question and response scale as for GP_CULT]
  • 3GP_NEIG: neighborhood groups and associations (e.g., homeowner or condo association, block club, neighborhood council)[same phrasing for question and response scale as for GP_ CULT]
  • 4GP_CHAR: charitable or service organizations (e.g., service club, fraternal organization, relief agency)[same phrasing for question and response scale as for GP_ CULT]

Political knowledge

These questions were prefaced by two sentences: “The following are multiple-choice questions about the political process. Answer to the best of your knowledge, and feel free to guess even if you aren't completely sure of your answer.”

  • PK1: Which party had the most members in the U.S. Senate as of January 1st, 2004?

  •   0 Democrats

  •   1 Republicans

  •   0 Neither party had a majority

  •   0 Don't know

  • PK2: What public office is now held by Colin Powell?

  •   1 Secretary of Defense

  •   0 Speaker of the House

  •   0 Secretary of State

  •   0 Supreme Court Justice

  •   0 Don't know

  • PK3: How long is the term of office for a United States Senator?

  •   0 2 years

  •   0 4 years

  •   0 5 years

  •   1 6 years

  •   0 Don't know

  • PK4: In the State of Washington, how are State Supreme Court justices chosen?

  •   0 They are appointed by the state House of representatives

  •   0 They are appointed by the state senate

  •   0 They are chosen by the other Justices

  •   1 They are elected by the general public

  •   0 Don't know

  • PK5: Who is currently the King County Executive?

  •   1 Ron Sims

  •   0 Mark Sidran

  •   0 Greg Nickels

  •   0 Norm Rice

  •   0 Christine Gregoire

  •   0 Don't know