Party Lines Influence Teen Decision-Making Behavior, CU Journalism Professor Finds

Published: Oct. 31, 2008

The motivations behind teen behavior aren't always black and white, but when it comes to political identity, how young people talk about issues seems to be a matter of "blue" and "red."

A two-year study by journalism Associate Professor Michael McDevitt of the University of Colorado at Boulder reveals clear differences in the way young people who identify as Republicans or Democrats acquire ideological identities, and express those loyalties.

"The research is breaking new ground by documenting the deliberative behaviors that would explain the likelihood that a young person would become a Democrat or Republican," said McDevitt. "When we look at the phenomenon of divisive, polarized, red-blue America, it suggests some troubling implications for how young people are socialized to become citizens. How deliberative are young Americans if they are acquiring political beliefs but aren't willing to alter them?"

The study involved telephone interviews with 950 high school seniors in 10 states - five "red" and five "blue" - which had competitive midterm elections for governor or U.S. Senate in 2006. Students were interviewed before and after the 2006 elections and following "Super Tuesday" caucuses on Feb. 5, 2008.

In the first part of the study, McDevitt looked at what influences the political beliefs of young people. For both Republican and Democratic youth, parents were named as the primary influence. However, with regard to other influences, Republicans were more likely to name religion while Democratic youth were more likely to identify friends and media.

The second portion of the study looked at the deliberative disposition of the young people surveyed. The subjects were asked how likely they were to disagree openly, argue with their parents about politics, listen to arguments from those they disagree with and initiate political talk, among other things.

McDevitt said the research indicates that young Democrats are more comfortable with robust exchanges on ideological topics, and they appear more motivated to integrate perspectives from different sources - including parents - but also student peers and media.

"Those who become Democrats are more exploratory in deliberative activities," said McDevitt. "Conservatives tend to be more protective of the values that guide their partisan allegiance."

The data also indicate that young Democrats become more resolute in their beliefs in a hostile environment, according to McDevitt. They seem to thrive in the development of deliberative dispositions when they live in red states and red counties.

As principal investigator for the study, Colors of Socialization, McDevitt is collaborating with two other CU-Boulder faculty members. Assistant Professor Jennifer Wolak, a political scientist, is investigating how cognition, news media attention, political personality, and discussion help to explain whether a young person changes a partisan identity. Assistant Professor Ben Kirshner, from the School of Education, is also interested in partisan "switchers." Later this semester, he will conduct in-depth interviews of about 20 youth to explore what was going on in their lives when they decided to switch.

McDevitt hopes to continue his research by including subjects from all 50 states during a future campaign season.