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Counter-Framing Effects (WP-11-10)

Dennis Chong and James Druckman

Electoral campaigns and policy debates are dynamic processes that unfold over-time. In the contest for public opinion, each side tries to frame issues to its advantage, but success also depends on developing effective responses to opposition frames. Surprisingly, scholars have paid little attention to the dynamics of counter-framing. This paper explores how the timing and repetition of counter-frames affect their success.  Using an over-time experiment, the researchers show that the best counter-framing strategy is contingent on the nature of audiences. Individuals who are motivated to form strong opinions in response to initial frames tend to defend those positions against counter-frames as long as the initial opinion remains accessible.  Paradoxically, repetition of the counter-frame can backfire if it continually reinforces initial opinions by stimulating motivated reasoning.  Therefore, extending the time lag between frame and counter-frame can increase the impact of the counter-frame by allowing initially strong opinions to decay. In contrast, counter-framing is always effective among those who form weak initial opinions regardless of the amount of elapsed time between the initial frame and the counter-frame, and repetition of the counter-frame can amplify its impact on these individuals. Given the moderating effects of processing mode, a uniformly successful communications strategy may be impossible as tactics that are effective on those with weak attitudes may be counterproductive on those with stronger viewpoints.

Dennis Chong, John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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