How Do People Get "Hooked" on Politics? Where Does Political Interest Come From, and Why Does It Matter?

Sept. 4, 2018

Markus Prior, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton and a CSDP Faculty Associate, has been researching the origins and influence of political interest, culminating in a book to be released this fall: Hooked: How Politics Captures People's Interest (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press). Political interest is the strongest predictor of 'good citizenship', yet hardly anything is known about it as it's been mostly unstudied for decades. Prior examines political interest and explains what political interest is, where it comes from, and why it matters, using the most thorough description available of political interest in four Western democracies. He analyzes large household panel data sets rarely used in political science to explain how interest develops in people's lives. 

Why are some people more interested in politics than others? Political interest is the predisposition to engage with, and return to, political content. It typically forms in adolescence or, at the latest, young adulthood, but there is large variation in the extent to which individuals develop political interest. Political scientists have devoted little attention to studying political interest as a dependent variable, yet Professor Prior describes this aspect of his research agenda as significant, because interest has strong effects on many other political cognitions and behaviors, and because these effects appear to be growing. As political interest is very stable over the life cycle, understanding the origins of political interest in childhood and adolescence becomes important.

Parents play an important role in the development of political interest. And when people become concerned about political issues, realize the importance of politics, or feel a stronger attachment to a political party, their interest rises. Material resources and education, on the other hand, have little to no effect on political interest.

Prior and Lori Bougher discussed findings from a related study on political interest in the 2016 presidential election in Public Opinion Quarterly, concluding that:

"Political interest is typically positively related to outcomes we care about and would like to see more of. Because a person’s general political interest today turns out to be very strongly related to her political interest last year or next year and because political interest is such a strong predictor of all kinds of political engagement, it provides democracies with a civic foundation. This foundation is stable: It is little affected by day-to-day politics—or even year-to-year politics. Because elections change our civic foundation modestly at best, we should not count on the foundation becoming stronger just when needed, in times of critical controversy. That is possibly bad news. The flipside is good, however: Our civic foundation, middling as it is, endures even when politics is unappealing. For the most part, it is not eroded by negative campaigns, horse-race coverage, or obfuscating candidates."