Examination of the Mediating Role of Moral Indignation

Communication Research
2018, Vol. 45(2) 213–240
© The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/0093650215616861
Influence of Discussion
Incivility on Deliberation: An
Examination of the Mediating
Role of Moral Indignation
Hyunseo Hwang1, Youngju Kim2, and Yeojin Kim3
Isolating causal relationships is very difficult in natural discussion because discussion
is, by nature, a causally complex interactive process. This study provides a novel
approach to this problem by using simulated online discussion to experimentally
manipulate message characteristics in a timed script that participants believed to be
a discussion with other participants. In particular, we manipulated whether simulated
online discussion partners expressed disagreement civilly or uncivilly. With this
unique design, we examined how individuals differently react to opposing views in
an online discussion setting depending on tone of disagreement expression. Our
results showed that exposure to uncivil discussion results in increased negative
emotions toward the other side, which in turn led to more closed-mindedness and
more expression of disagreement with the discussion partner on the other side of
the issue, although uncivil discussion and negative emotions are positively related to
recall of the other side’s reasons.
civility, deliberation, moral indignation, motivated reasoning, political discussion
Political deliberation is considered a “discursive system where citizens share information about public affairs, talk politics, form opinions, and participate in political
processes” (J. Kim, Wyatt, & Katz, 1999, p. 361). Although advocates of deliberative
1University of California, Davis, CA, USA
2The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA
3Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Hyunseo Hwang, University of California, Davis, 108 Sproul Hall, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616,
Email: [email protected]
616861 CRXXXX10.1177/0093650215616861Communication ResearchHwang et al.
214 Communication Research 45(2)
democracy believe that political talk is at the heart of democracy, theorists assert that
political talk itself cannot lead to the desirable outcomes of deliberation if it does not
meet certain fundamental conditions (Bohman, 1999; Mansbridge et al., 2010;
Thompson, 2008). In fact, to date, the findings from empirical studies on public
deliberation seem to be mixed (e.g., Janssen & Kies, 2005; Ryfe, 2005). On one hand,
numerous studies provide empirical evidence supporting the beneficial effects of
political discussion especially on individual-cognitive reflection (e.g., Gastil &
Dillard, 1999; Kim, Wyatt, & Katz, 1999; Price, Nir, & Cappella, 2006). On the other
hand, however, studies have shown that public deliberation fails to produce beneficial
effects especially on socio-intergroup-level variables such as lessening group conflict, increasing mutual understanding and tolerance, or promoting open-mindedness
toward disagreement (Conover & Searing, 2005; Mendelberg & Oleske, 2000;
Rosenberg, 2007).
Unfortunately, despite rich theoretical discussions in the literature about the necessary conditions for deliberation and the recent proliferation of empirical studies on deliberation, such mixed findings pose difficulties in understanding exactly why, how, and in
what conditions political talks actually produce putative beneficial effects of deliberation. This is, in part, due to a lack of systematic empirical research isolating the effects
of specific factors embedded in discussion. Although some survey-based studies provide
valuable information about the effects of public deliberation by analyzing the consequences of participation in small group discussion over time (e.g., Price, Nir, & Capella,
2006), it is very difficult to identify what specific features of discussion are true causal
factors for observed beneficial and/or detrimental outcomes of discussion because discussion is, by nature, a causally complex interactive process.
In this regard, Mutz (2008) argued that research on deliberative democracy needs
to move from tests of normative deliberative theory per se, such as examination of
whether public deliberation produces expected benefits, to development of “middlerange” theories that aim to test specific causal relationships between one or two conditions and outcome variables. Although such middle-range empirical research does not
test deliberative theory per se, it can contribute to normative debates over positive and
negative implications of political discussion by providing a common ground of empirical evidence and factual information about the effects of specific conditions.
In an effort to build and investigate “middle-range” theories of deliberation, this
study offers a methodological innovation to identify and isolate causal relationships
between conditions for deliberation and their outcomes. Using simulated online discussion in an experiment setting, we isolate the causal factors of interest from many
possible confounds by controlling discussion contents and non-verbal cues. Among
diverse factors, we empirically tested causal effects of two factors, exposure to disagreement and civility, which have been treated as core necessary conditions for deliberation (Mutz, 2008; Thompson, 2008). For this research goal, this study manipulates
the reception of civil versus uncivil expression of disagreement within simulated
online discussions and examines the effects of these received messages on emotions,
cognitions, attitudes, and discussion behaviors to answer the questions whether, why,
and how incivility has negative effects on deliberative processes independently and
Hwang et al. 215
jointly with disagreement. More specifically, the focus of this study is on the role of
negative moral emotions toward the uncivil attacker, which we term “moral indignation,” in explaining the erosive effects of discussion incivility on citizens’ minds, emotions, and behaviors.
Positive Versus Negative Consequences of Exposure to
Hearing the other side has been considered as a necessary precondition for beneficial
effects of deliberative discussion (Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004). In fact, prior studies have consistently shown that exposure to disagreement has positive effects on cognitive reflection at individual level, which in turn enhances sophistication of opinion,
issue involvement, and participation (e.g., Ikeda & Boase, 2011; N. Kim, 2013; Price,
Cappella, & Nir, 2002). However, successful deliberation, political talk among people
who have differing views, contributes not only to individual-intrapersonal-level outcomes (e.g., opinion quality and political engagement) but also to socio-intergrouplevel outcomes (e.g., favorable emotions, attitudes, behaviors toward disagreeable
views or political outgroups), which are crucial indicators of a long-lasting deliberation process (Park, 2000). That is, favorable emotions, attitudes, and behaviors toward
other citizens, especially those with different views, enrich diversity in political discussion by keeping individuals open to criticism of their opinions and their conduct,
cultivating their ability to acknowledge differences of opinion and put a positive value
on variations in opinion, and thus facilitating coordination and mutual understanding
among citizens (Habermas, 1962/1989).
Despite its theoretical and practical importance, relatively few studies have investigated the effects of exposure to differing views on socio-intergroup-level outcomes.
In addition, contrary to the expectations of deliberative theorists, empirical findings
from research on message effects have consistently shown that counter-attitudinal
messages often have corrosive effects on intergroup emotions and attitudes such as
negative feelings toward the other side (De Dreu & van Knippenberg, 2005) and attitude polarization (Arceneaux, Johnson, & Murphy, 2012; Prior, 2013), instead of
deliberative responses. Research on intergroup relation also shows that in some cases
contact with outgroup members exacerbates conflicts and deepens intergroup confrontations (Mendelberg & Oleske, 2000).
Empirical findings about message effects and intergroup relations suggest that even
though exposure to disagreeable views has beneficial effects on individual-cognitive
reflection variables such as sophistication of opinion and political engagement, it does
not necessarily mean that disagreement has an impact on socio-intergroup-level variables in the same, beneficial direction. Notably, research on disconfirmation bias suggests that hostile reactions to counter-attitudinal messages, which often lead to
defensive bolstering and opinion polarization, can also increase systematic and indepth processing of oppositional reasons (Edwards & Smith, 1996; Lee, Choi, Kim, &
Kim, 2014; Taber & Lodge, 2006), which have been treated as central benefits of
deliberation. For example, Taber and Lodge (2006) found that individuals took more
216 Communication Research 45(2)
time processing counter-attitudinal arguments than pro-attitudinal arguments. However,
they also found that such effortful and in-depth processing of counter-attitudinal arguments led to hostile reactions to disagreeable views rather than deliberative responses
by showing that the same individuals took more time denigrating, deprecating, and
counter-arguing the incongruent arguments, which in turn led to defensive bolstering
and opinion polarization.
Given that individual-intrapersonal outcomes such as awareness and knowledge of
differing views may not differ between deliberative versus hostile responses to counter-attitudinal information, such findings suggest that whether hearing the other side in
effect produces beneficial effects of deliberation may largely depend on whether it has
beneficial or at least not detrimental effects on socio-intergroup-level variables (i.e.,
intergroup emotions, attitudes, and behaviors). Furthermore, these findings suggest
that different psychological processes might shape individuals’ different reactions to
disagreement. That is, both deliberative and hostile reactions to disagreement may
lead to increased awareness of different opinions, but deliberative reactions are likely
to result in open-mindedness to opposing views and favorable attitudes toward fellow
citizens, while hostile reactions are likely to result in worsening inter-group antagonism and increased closed-mindedness. Unfortunately, however, the psychological
processes underlying these two different reactions to disagreement have been a “black
box” in deliberation studies (Mutz, 2008; Wesolowska, 2007). Although the research
contexts have been quite different, theories and studies on social psychology provide
valuable descriptions and explanations of the deliberative and hostile processes that
might occur during discussion.
Theoretical support for the notion of these two different reactions to disagreement
can be found in Kunda’s (1987, 1990) theory of motivated reasoning, which posits that
people tend to use different reasoning processes depending on their motivation on a
given occasion. According to this theory, the motives underlying all reasoning can
broadly fall into two categories: accuracy goals, which motivate individuals to get
accurate judgments and correct conclusions, and defensive goals (sometimes called
directional or partisan goals), which motivate them to use their reason to defend or
protect their prior attitudes and beliefs. Research on motivated reasoning has shown
that accuracy goals lead to a more unbiased processing of information, whereas defensive goals lead citizens to engage in affective information processes that uphold the
direction and strength of their biases (Strickland, Taber, & Lodge, 2011; Taber &
Lodge, 2006).
When does defensive motivation prevail over accuracy motivation? What kinds of
factors might prompt defensive motivation instead of accuracy motivation when individuals are exposed to disagreeable information? An identifiable source of defensive
reasoning is perceived hostility. Research on defensive motivation suggests that
opposing views may be seen as hostile against the self because one’s opinions have
been incorporated into one’s self-concept. As a result, opposing views may prompt
defensive motivation, resulting in less open-minded reasoning (Edwards & Smith,
1996) and more competitive or even retaliatory behavior instead of mutual respect (De
Dreu & van Knippenberg, 2005).
Hwang et al. 217
The Role of Discussion Civility in Political Talk
Exposure to disagreement can have erosive consequences, especially when disagreement is expressed through unjustly attacking the opponents’ self or beliefs. Such
attacks often “go beyond facts and differences, and move instead toward name-calling,
contempt, and derision of the opposition” (Brooks & Geer, 2007, p. 1), which can be
termed as “incivility.” To be more specific, incivility in the context of political discussion means expression of disagreement by denying and disrespecting the justice of the
opposing views. For the purpose of this study, we term this “discussion incivility.” In
contrast, discussion civility means expression of disagreement with an orientation
toward understanding others’ views and respecting the rights of others (Kingwell,
1995). In the same vein, Mutz and Reeves (2005) distinguished incivility from civility
of the discussion in their experiment study by inserting “gratuitous asides that suggested a lack of respect for and/or frustration with the opposition” (p. 5). Brooks and
Geer (2007) operationalized incivility as use of words without respect for the opponent including “unthinking opponent,” “recklessly,” “dishonest,” “unprincipled,”
“insensitive,” “heartless,” and “cowardly” in negative messages (p. 5). Based on this
narrowly defined concept of incivility, we define incivility in this study as a violation
of interactional social norms of politeness through expressing disrespect for, frustration with, and/or insults to an individual or a group that opposes one’s own views.
Civility as an interactional social norm represents a show of mutual respect between
conflicting parties. Breaking the civility norm can generate negative emotions (Kingwell,
1995). In everyday life, people tend to respond with anger on receiving uncivil communication (Phillips & Smith, 2004). Because such emotions arise from a judgment of
violation of interactional social norms, they are not only negatively valenced but also
carry strong moral condemnation, which we label “moral indignation” in this study.
The concept of moral indignation can be linked to previous research on individuals’
emotional reactions to unjust hostile media content, referred to as “media indignation”
by Hwang, Pan, and Sun (2008). Similar to media indignation, the concept of moral
indignation includes anger, disgust, and contempt. As Hwang and his colleagues note,
moral indignation has two characteristics regarding its cognitive antecedents. First, as
the concept itself implies, moral indignation is rooted in certain moral judgments about
the violation of normative or moral standards (Haidt, 2003; Tangney, Stuewig, &
Mashek, 2007). According to cognitive appraisal theories, emotions are elicited by individuals’ subjective evaluations and interpretations of events (Frijda, 1988; Moors,
Ellsworth, Scherer, & Frijda, 2013). In this sense, uncivil commentary by a discussion
partner can be a key elicitor of moral indignation because it will be viewed as a violation
of social and interpersonal norms. Previous studies have shown that others’ failure to
adhere to the moral code elicits negative moral emotions such as anger, disgust, and
contempt (e.g., Dalbert, 2002; Hafer & Correy, 1999). Thus, we predict that exposure to
uncivil discussion will result in stronger moral indignation toward both like- and unlikeminded discussion partners than exposure to civil discussion (Hypothesis 1a [H1a]).
Second, in contrast to self-blaming moral emotions such as shame and guilt, moral
indignation is a set of other-blaming moral emotions which are typically induced by
218 Communication Research 45(2)
others’ immoral behaviors, especially when such immoral behaviors are harmful to the
perceiver’s interests and values (e.g., Haidt, 2003; Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt,
1999; Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2013). In this sense, Izard (1977, 1993) clustered the
three other-blaming moral emotions (anger, disgust, and contempt) as a “hostility
triad” (see also Rozin et al., 1999). In the context of political discussion, unlike-minded
discussants’ uncivil attacks on the perceiver’s opinion reflect not only immorality but
also hostility, and thus may trigger stronger moral indignation than do like-minded
discussants’ uncivil expression. In the inter-group context, acrimonious group conflict
often intensifies group polarization and intergroup hostility, which leads to inter-group
bias in emotions such as polarization of emotions toward ingroup versus outgroup
members (Brewer, 2001; Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002). Therefore, we expect that
moral indignation toward unlike-minded partner would be greater than moral indignation toward like-minded partner (Hypothesis 1b [H1b]) and such inter-group bias in
indignation would be greater when participants are exposed to uncivil discussion than
when they are exposed to civil discussion (Hypothesis 1c [H1c]).
Given that civility is an interactional social norm, uncivil attack targeting the self or
ingroup can lead to strong moral condemnation, which erodes the justice or legitimacy
of a discussion. In an experimental study, Ng and Detenber (2005) provided evidence
for the effects of incivility on moral judgment of others. Reflecting civility as a social
norm, their findings showed that incivility produces not only a hostile perception but
also negative moral evaluations of online political discussants. These results suggest
that incivility in the political discussion setting does have erosive consequences on
one’s moral evaluations of other discussion participants, which leads to enhanced disconfirming expressions such as reduced expression of agreement and increased
expression of disagreement with discussion partners. Thus, we expect that exposure to
uncivil discussion will result in fewer expressions of agreement with both like- and
unlike-minded discussion partners than exposure to civil discussion (Hypothesis 2a
[H2a]) and greater expressions of disagreement with both like- and unlike-minded
discussion partners than exposure to civil discussion (Hypothesis 3a [H3a]).
Kingwell (1995) pointed out that civility as moral justice rather than pure rationality reduces social friction, enabling persons with diverse interests to meet to talk with
one another and reach collective decisions. In this sense, uncivil attacks may also have
corrosive effects on intergroup communication behaviors by prompting inter-group
hostility. In fact, previous research on the effect of uncivil expression in interpersonal
relationship settings has consistently shown that verbal attacks targeting the self or
ingroup produce consistent and strong hostile behavioral reactions (see Kinney &
Segrin, 1998). Therefore, we expect that discussion incivility would have greater deleterious effects on discussion behaviors toward an unlike-minded partner than discussion behaviors toward a like-minded partner, so that participants would disconfirm an
unlike-minded partner more strongly than a like-minded partner when they are exposed
to uncivil discussion compared with when they are exposed to civil discussion. That
is, participants would express agreement with unlike-minded partner less frequently
than they would do with like-minded partner during discussion (Hypothesis 2b [H2b])
and such intergroup bias in agreement expression would be greater when participants
Hwang et al. 219
are exposed to uncivil discussion than when they are exposed to civil discussion
(Hypothesis 2c [H2c]). With a similar logic, we expect that participants would express
disagreement with unlike-minded partner more frequently than they would do with
like-minded partner during discussion (Hypothesis 3b [H3b]) and such difference
would be greater when participants are exposed to uncivil discussion than when they
are exposed to civil discussion (Hypothesis 3c [H3c]).
Hostile responses to uncivil attacks may have beneficial effects on individual-intrapersonal-level variables. For example, Brooks and Geer (2007) showed that uncivil
attacks in political ads have some positive effects on political engagement. Other studies have also shown that uncivil negative information may grab receivers’ attention
and thus enhance elaboration and recall of the information by showing that attack ads
enhance message recall (e.g., Chang, 2001; Geer & Geer, 2003), knowledge about
candidates (e.g., Niven, 2006), and interest in the campaign (e.g., Bartels, 2000). Thus,
we expect beneficial effects of exposure to discussion incivility on recall of both likeand unlike-minded partners’ reasons such that exposure to uncivil discussion will
result in a better recall of both like- and unlike-minded discussion partners’ reasons
than exposure to civil discussion (Hypothesis 4a [H4a]).
Studies on confirmation bias and selective recall suggest that people are more likely
to ignore, pay little attention to, or shallowly process counter-attitudinal information
than pro-attitudinal information (Festinger, 1957; Hart et al., 2009). However, studies
have also revealed that people can use more in-depth and effortful processing of counter-attitudinal information especially when they are highly motivated to defend their
preexisting attitudes by disconfirming and/or counter-arguing oppositional views (e.g.,
Eagly, Kulesa, Brannon, Shaw, & Hutson-Comeaux, 2000). Disconfirmation of counter-attitudinal information resulting from strong defensive motivation typically requires
enhanced elaboration of the information and thus leads to enhanced memory for it.
Thus, we expect that participants would recall a like-minded partner’s reasons more
correctly than an unlike-minded partner’s reasons (Hypothesis 4b [H4b]) and such confirmation bias in reason recall will be reduced in the incivility condition compared with
the civility condition due to enhanced defensive motivation (Hypothesis 4c [H4c]).
Finally, civility as a foundation of one’s moral judgment of discussion partners or
discussion procedure can also affect post-discussion attitudes toward disagreement.
Studies have shown that individuals who feel that they are treated with respect and view
decision-making procedures as just are more likely to be satisfied with the discussion
and open-minded toward disagreeable views (Arvai, 2003; Colquitt, 2001; Weiner,
Alexander, & Shortell, 2002). Thus, we expect that exposure to uncivil discussion would
lead to less open-mindedness than exposure to civil discussion (Hypothesis 5 [H5]).
Moral Indignation as an Emotional Motivator for
Reasoning and Discussion Behaviors
As suggested by the functional theory of emotions (Dasgupta, DeSteno, Williams, &
Hunsinger, 2009; Frijda, 1988; Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991; Nabi, 1999, 2003), moral
indignation in response to others’ uncivil discussion behaviors may spur an
220 Communication Research 45(2)
ego-defensive motivation to protect the beliefs that have been infringed on or damaged
by such unjust hostile behaviors, which may lead to subsequent hostile responses
toward the violator. When experiencing anger, for instance, there is a desire for revenge
that may end up in an attack on the source of the anger (Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991;
Nabi, 2002). Anger is believed to mobilize defensive or corrective behaviors for the
purpose of defending oneself, defending one’s loved ones, or correcting some appraised
wrong (Averill, 1982; Izard, 1977, 1993; Nabi, 1999, 2002). This is because anger
serves an adaptive function related to psychological processes of ego-defense (Izard,
1977; Nabi, 2002; Pellitteri, 2002). Like anger, feelings of disgust often prompt defensive or hostile reactions such as withdrawing or breaking off contact with the offending party (Izard, 1977). Contempt also plays a motivational role in developing self- and
ingroup-defense against the adversary such that it causes individuals to regard infringers as morally inferior, which sometimes results in prejudice toward social groups to
which the infringers belong.
Following this conception, we argue that moral indignation resulting from uncivil
attacks from an unlike-minded discussion partner may trigger a strong defensive motivation which leads to a disconfirmation bias in cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral
reactions to opposing views. First, we expect that moral indignation would spur people’s defensive discussion behaviors. Moral indignation resulting from perceived
injustice is found to be a key motivating factor for actions, including actions to seek
redress (e.g., Barclay, Skarlicki, & Pugh, 2005) and engaging in political activities
aimed at correcting wrongs (Hwang et al., 2008; Pagano & Huo, 2007). In this regard,
moral indignation invoked when beliefs or opinions are attacked in an uncivil way
may result in a disconfirmation bias in discussion behaviors; disregarding or counterarguing unlike-minded others’ arguments is seen necessary to right the opponent’s
unjust hostile behaviors.
Second, we expect that moral indignation as a defensive motivator may increase
attention to counter-attitudinal arguments, but at the same time stimulate closedmindedness toward them. As Taber and Lodge (2006) noted, people’s hot cognitions
charged by negative emotions toward a target motivate defensive goals that elicit indepth processing of counter-attitudinal information. For example, people tend to
engage in critical scrutiny of information which contradicts their prior beliefs and as a
result spend more time processing attitudinally incongruent arguments than attitudinally congruent arguments. More germane to the current study, studies taking a functional approach to emotions have shown that experiencing message-induced anger and
disgust often increases accurate recall of information (Nabi, 2002) and anger, disgust,
and contempt also fuel negative attitudes toward the elicitors of those emotions
(Lemerise & Dodge, 1993; Nabi, 2002).
In sum, moral indignation can be a useful concept for understanding when and how
discussion incivility matters by providing a theoretical explanation about the effects of
incivility on citizens’ cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors toward disagreement. That
is, discussion incivility combined with disagreement can elicit moral indignation
because uncivil attacks targeting individuals’ beliefs or opinions can be viewed as an
unjust hostile behavior. In turn, such moral indignation as an emotional motivator can
Hwang et al. 221
trigger disconfirmation bias in intergroup discussion behaviors, cognitions, and attitudes toward disagreeable views. Thus, we predict that moral indignation toward an
unlike-minded partner mediates the effects of discussion incivility on the expression
of agreement with the unlike-minded partner’s arguments (Hypothesis 6a [H6a]), the
expression of disagreement with the unlike-minded partner’s arguments (Hypothesis
6b [H6b]), recall of the unlike-minded partner’s reasons (Hypothesis 6c [H6c]), and
open-mindedness (Hypothesis 6d [H6d]).
Experimental Design
A web-based experiment with participants enrolled in undergraduate courses at a large
university was used for the study. The study was conducted in the spring of 2008. As the
goal of the study was to explore individuals’ reactions to like- and unlike-minded discussion partners on the issue of withdrawal from Iraq, participants who reported that
they did not have opinion or were neutral on the issue in the online registration process
(n = 38) were asked to participate in an alternative study. A total of 230 individuals who
had pro- or anti-withdrawal attitudes participated in the actual experiment. Participants
who reported that the chat was not real (n = 17) and those who did not respond to key
outcome variables (n = 2) were removed from the analyses (N = 211). ANOVA and
cross-tabular analysis revealed no significant differences across experimental groups
along any of the demographic and political orientation variables measured in the preexperiment survey, including gender (75% of the participants were female), age (M =
20.21, SD = 2.24), party affiliation (M = 3.03, SD = 1.43, 1 = strong Democrat and 7 =
strong Republican), and prior opinion about withdrawal (74.6% of the participants supported withdrawal, while 25.4% opposed withdrawal). Overall, the experiment consisted of a 2 (discussion partner: like-minded partner vs. unlike-minded partner) × 2
(discussion incivility: civil vs. uncivil) mixed factorial design, with the first factor varying within-participants and the other varying between-participants.
Participants first registered in a lab study session through an online registration
process in which they were asked to report their opinion about withdrawing U.S.
troops from Iraq, demographic information, and political orientations, and then to
choose a time slot and a location for their study participation. One week after online
registration, they participated in a scheduled session of the experimental study in a
computer lab. On arriving in the lab, they first read a news article on the controversy
over withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This was chosen as the topic of the chat
room because it is a political question on which most people have preexisting opinions, yet is controversial enough that a chat room where the other two chatters take
opposing views from one another (i.e., one supports withdrawal, the other opposes it)
is plausible. The news article described the arguments of two conflicting sides of the
issue in a balanced way.1
After reading the news article, participants were randomly assigned to participate
in 10 to 15 minutes of online chatting in which the issue covered in the news article
222 Communication Research 45(2)
was the topic of discussion. The online chat room was similar in appearance to a typical online chat room: Participants typed in comments, clicked a send button, and saw
their comments appear in the chat window in sequence with other “chatters” (see
Appendix A). In the chat room, participants saw instructions and comments ostensibly
made by the moderator and other chatters, but the other “people” were in actuality a
timed script in which the discursive civility was manipulated. To control discussion
flow, participants were asked to follow the moderator’s instructions. Because the study
was aimed at investigating participants’ reactions to other discussion partners’ expressions, the real participants were given their turns after the two simulated chatters’
turns. The simulated moderator first asked about the two simulated chatters’ thoughts
about the issue in terms of whether withdrawal would be good for the Iraqi people, and
then asked the same question to the participants. After the real participants finished
their turn, the simulated moderator asked what the two simulated discussion participants thought about the costs and benefits of withdrawal, and then asked the same
question to the experiment participant.
In order to control participants’ unwanted behaviors during the discussion and at
the same time make participants believe the chat is real, several instructions were
given to participants before their participation in a chat room. First, participants were
told that chat participants joined the chat room from three separate study labs and
participants should use their lab IDs (i.e., Mountain for the all participants, Sky and
River for the two simulated chatters) as their nickname in order to keep the chat anonymous and protect participants’ privacy. Second, participants were told that they could
not type and send messages during others’ turns as a way to encourage participants to
read the others’ views carefully and not to interrupt others’ expressions.
After completing the online chat, participants were asked to answer questions about
their emotional reactions toward each discussion partner (i.e., Sky and River), reasons
for the two other chatters’ views, and their open-mindedness toward the opposing view
on the issue.
Online chat scripts that served as the stimuli for this study were crafted to manipulate
discussion incivility (civility vs. incivility). The manipulations for discussion incivility were placed in the pre-programmed discussion scripts. The key arguments made in
the timed scripts by the simulated chatters, Sky who supported withdrawal and River
who opposed withdrawal, were equal across the experimental conditions except for a
few phrases used to create the manipulations. In the civility version, the two simulated
chatters were polite when they counter-argued with each other, inserting phrases such
as “[discussant] raised an important issue, but I think . . .” and “I don’t disagree with
all of [discussant], but . . .” before expressing their own thoughts. In the uncivil version, the two simulated chatters’ expressions included phrases showing a lack of
respect for, frustration with, and insults to the oppositional views (see Appendix B for
sample statements of manipulation). By holding the substance of the message constant
for the civil and uncivil versions equal across the conditions while varying a few key
Hwang et al. 223
words and phrases that captured experimental factors, the timed script presented reasons for the two simulated chatters’ arguments that are of similar length and depth
(four reasons for each chatter).2
Moral indignation. Moral indignation toward the unlike-minded discussion partner and
the like-minded partner were measured with respondents’ indication of how strongly
the two discussion partners’ commentary made them feel the following three emotions: anger, disgust, and contempt. Moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner was constructed based on whether the simulated discussion partner’s view about
the issue was inconsistent with the participants’ view which was measured in the prediscussion survey. For example, for a participant who supported withdrawal, items for
the simulated chatter who opposed withdrawal (i.e., River) were used for the measure
of his or her moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner, while items for the
simulated chatter who supported withdrawal (i.e., Sky) were used for the measure of
the participant’s moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner. All three items
were measured on an 11-point scale (0 = not at all, 10 = a great deal). The responses
to these three items were averaged into a single index (M = 2.10, SD = 2.28, α = .94
for the like-minded partner; M = 4.89, SD = 2.87, α = .94 for the unlike-minded
Reason recall. After reporting moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner,
participants were asked to list reasons why Sky supported withdrawal and why River
opposed withdrawal. Each correct reason the respondent recalled was coded as one,
while the answer which was not mentioned by the simulated chatters or merely restated
the simulated chatters’ opinion was coded as zero. We assessed intercoder reliability
between two coders on a subsample of 40 participants’ responses. Cohen’s kappa values were assessed for the two coders’ agreement above chance (κ = .83 for reasons of
Sky’s view; κ = .86 for reasons of River’s view). Based on participants’ position on the
withdrawal issue, reasons for the like-minded partner and reasons for the unlikeminded partner were counted (M = 2.67, SD = 1.49 for the like-minded partner; M =
2.08, SD = 1.24 for the unlike-minded partner).
Open-mindedness. The measures used in this study were adapted from Borah (2014).
Respondents were asked to indicate on an 11-point scale (0 = strongly disagree, 10 =
strongly agree) their level of agreement with each of the two statements: “After I participated in the discussion, (1) I felt more open to the views differing from my position
on the issue; and (2) I got a better understanding of those who disagree with me on the
issue.” These items were averaged into an index (M = 4.91, SD = 2.20, inter-item correlation = .50).
Expressed agreement and disagreement. Participants’ expressions during the online
chat were used to measure expressed agreement and disagreement with the unlike- and
224 Communication Research 45(2)
like-minded partners. Two undergraduate students were trained as coders to analyze
participants’ discussion expression with the two simulated chatters, Sky and River.
The coders analyzed a total of 211 participants’ discussion scripts, sentence by sentence. Statements expressing explicit agreement with a simulated chatter or indicating
a signal of support for ideas or reasons a prior simulated chatter expressed were coded
either agreement with Sky or agreement with River. In contrast, a statement that indicated explicit disagreement with a simulated chatter or signaled opposition to something a prior simulated chatter said was coded as disagreement with either Sky or
River (see Appendix C for the details on coding agreement and disagreement expressions). By comparing participants’ reported issue position in the pretest with their
expressed agreement and disagreement with the two simulated chatters, we constructed the number of sentences of agreement and disagreement with the unlikeminded (M = 2.16, SD = 1.27, Cohen’s κ = .79, ranging from 0 to 8 for agreement;
M = 2.78, SD = 1.47, Cohen’s κ = .82, ranging from 0 to 8 for disagreement) and the
like-minded partner (M = 3.11, SD = 1.46, Cohen’s κ = .81, ranging from 0 to 9 for
agreement; M = 1.40, SD = .93, Cohen’s κ = .82, ranging from 0 to 7, for disagreement). For example, for a participant who supported the withdrawal, expressed agreement and disagreement with River (who opposed to withdrawal) were recorded as
expression of agreement and disagreement with the unlike-minded partner, respectively, while expressed agreement and disagreement with Sky (who supported withdrawal) were recorded as expression of agreement and disagreement with the
like-minded partner.
Manipulation Check
To examine if the manipulated simulated chatters’ expressions were perceived to be
either uncivil or civil as intended, participants were asked about their perceptions of
the incivility of the comments after manipulation. Participants were asked to rank their
perceptions of the comments as being impolite on an 11-point scale ranging from 0
(strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree). An independent-samples t test established
that participants in the incivility condition indeed perceived that the comments were
significantly more impolite (M = 7.62, SD = 2.73) than those in the civility condition
(M = 4.33, SD = 2.45; t(211) = 9.23, p < .001).
Effects of Discussion Incivility and Its Interaction Effects With Discussion
A series of 2 (discussion partner: like- vs. unlike-minded partner) × 2 (discussion incivility: civil vs. uncivil discussion) mixed-design ANOVA was run on four dependent
measures (i.e., moral indignation, agreement expression, disagreement expression, and
reason recall), with the first factor varying within-participants and the other one varying
between-participants. A one-way ANOVA was conducted for testing discussion
Hwang et al. 225
incivility effect on open-mindedness. Means and standard deviations of dependent variables for each condition are summarized in Table 1.
A 2 × 2 mixed-design ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of discussion
incivility on moral indignation, F(1, 209) = 13.98, p < .001, ηp
2 = .063. Consistent
with H1a, additional analyses showed that exposure to the uncivil debate led to greater
moral indignation toward both like- and unlike-minded partners (M = 2.53, SD = 2.53
for the like-minded partner; M = 5.62, SD = 2. 89 for the unlike-minded partner) than
exposure to the civil debate (M = 1.78, SD = 2.05, F(1, 209) = 69.75, p < .001, ηp
= .250
for the like-minded partner; M = 4.36, SD = 2.79, F(1, 209) = 74.88, p < .001, ηp
2 = .264
for the unlike-minded partner). The results also revealed inter-group bias in negative
emotional reactions (H1b): Participants felt greater moral indignation toward the
unlike-minded partner (M = 4.89, SD = 2.89) during the discussion than toward the
like-minded partner (M = 2.10, SD = 2.30), F(1, 209) = 144.18, p < .001, ηp
= .408.
However, inconsistent with H1c which predicted that exposure to the uncivil debate
would amplify intergroup bias in negative emotional reactions compared with exposure to the civil debate, the two-way interaction of discussion partner and discussion
incivility was not statistically significant, indicating that discussion incivility had similar effects on moral indignation toward both the like- and the unlike-minded partner.
Table 1. Means and Standardized Deviations of Key Outcome Variables for Experimental
Civil Uncivil
(n = 121) (n = 90)
Moral indignation
Like-minded partner 1.78a1 2.05 2.53b1 2.53
Unlike-minded partner 4.36a2 2.79 5.62b2 2.89
Agreement expression
Like-minded partner 3.12a1 1.44 3.10a1 1.49
Unlike-minded partner 2.26a2 1.28 2.02a2 1.27
Disagreement expression
Like-minded partner 1.34a1 1.02 1.48a1 0.91
Unlike-minded partner 2.50a2 1.40 3.14b2 1.47
Reason recall
Like-minded partner 2.78a1 1.46 2.52a1 1.54
Unlike-minded partner 1.93a2 1.13 2.29b1 1.35
Open-mindedness 5.16a1 2.16 4.47b1 2.30
Note. In a row, means sharing letters are not statistically different, whereas means with different letters
are significantly different at or below p < .5. For each outcome variable, means sharing numbers in
the same column are not statistically different, whereas means with different numbers are statistically
different at or below p < .5.
226 Communication Research 45(2)
Two 2 × 2 mixed-design ANOVAs were run to examine H2a to H3c, which predicted main effects of discussion incivility and discussion partner and their interaction
effects on discussion behavior variables (i.e., agreement expression and disagreement
expression). The results showed that the main effect of discussion partner on agreement expression was statistically significant (M = 3.11, SD = 1.46 for the like-minded
partner; M = 2.16, SD = 1.28 for the unlike-minded partner), F(1, 209) = 50.79, p <
.001, ηp
= .196, indicating that participants expressed agreement with the like-minded
partner more frequently than with the unlike-minded partner during the discussion
(H2b). However, the results did not confirm H2a and H2c, suggesting that discussion
incivility did not affect expression of agreement with both partners, nor did it have an
interaction effect with discussion partner on expression of agreement.
The results supported H3a: Participants expressed disagreement more frequently when
they were exposed to the uncivil discussion than when they were exposed to the civil
discussion, F(1, 209) = 11.59, p < .01, ηp
= .053. The results also yielded support for
H3b: Participants expressed disagreement with the unlike-minded partner more frequently (M = 2.78, SD = 1.47) than with the like-minded partner (M = 1.40, SD = .93)
during the discussion, F(1, 209) = 143.06, p < .001, ηp
= .406. The results also showed
that the interaction effect (H3c) was statistically significant, suggesting that exposure to
uncivil discussion, as compared with civil discussion, enlarged inter-group bias in disagreement expression, F(1, 209) = 4.48, p < .05, ηp
= .021 (see Figure 1 for interaction
pattern). Further analyses revealed that participants expressed disagreement with the
unlike-minded partner more frequently when the other two simulated chatters uncivilly attacked each other (M = 3.14, SD = 1.47) than when they discussed the issue
civilly (M = 2.50, SD = 1.40), F(1, 209) = 10.30, p < .01, ηp
= .047. However, expression
of disagreement with the like-minded partner was not statistically different between the
civil versus uncivil discussion group. In sum, these findings indicate that participants
expressed disagreement with the unlike-minded partner more frequently than with the
like-minded partner, especially when the other two chatters uncivilly attacked each other.
Figure 1. Interaction effects of incivility and discussion partner on disagreement expression.
Hwang et al. 227
The results revealed that discussion partners had a significant main effect on reason
recall (H4b), F(1, 209) = 20.82, p < .001, ηp
= .091, indicating that participants remembered like-minded partner’s reasons (M = 2.67, SD = 1.49) better than unlike-minded
partner’s reasons (M = 2.08, SD = 1.24). Although discussion incivility did not have a
main effect (H4a), it had a significant interaction effect with the discussion partner
(H4c), F(1, 209) = 6.76, p < .01, ηp
= .031. As seen in Figure 2, participants remembered the like-minded participant’s reason better than the unlike-minded partner’s reason in the discussion civility condition, F(1, 209) = 30.07, p < .001, ηp
= .126, whereas
the difference was not statistically significant in the discussion incivility condition.
Further analyses revealed that participants’ recall of the agreeable reasons was stable
across the discussion incivility conditions, while exposure to uncivil discussion
enhanced participants’ recall of the unlike-minded partner’s reasons compared with
exposure to civil discussion, F(1, 209) = 4.52, p < .05, ηp
= .021, indicating that exposure to uncivil discussion reduces the gap in recall of like- versus unlike-minded partner’s reasons mainly through enhancing recall of the unlike-minded partners’ reasons.
H5 predicted that exposure to uncivil discussion would result in decreased openmindedness toward oppositional views compared with exposure to civil discussion.
The results provide empirical evidence supporting H5, showing that participants in the
uncivil discussion condition reported less open-mindedness after discussion (M =
5.16, SD = 2.16) than those in the civil discussion condition (M = 4.47, SD = 2.30),
F(1, 209) = 4.89, p < .05, ηp
= .023.
Indirect, Direct, and Total Effects of Discussion Incivility on Reason
Recall, Discussion Behaviors, and Open-Mindedness via Moral
H6a to H6d examine whether participants’ moral indignation toward the unlikeminded partner as an emotional motivator for inducing hostile responses mediates the
Figure 2. Interaction effects of incivility and discussion partner on reason recall.
228 Communication Research 45(2)
effects of discussion incivility on reason recall, discussion behaviors (i.e., expression of
agreement and disagreement with the unlike-minded partner), and open-mindedness.
To examine whether moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner served as a
mediator for the relations between the manipulation of discussion incivility and the
four outcome variables, we adopted the procedure proposed by Preacher and Hayes
(2008). According to their procedure, there are three criteria to justify a mediation
effect. First, the independent variable should be significantly correlated with the mediator variable. Second, after the effect of the independent variable on the dependent
variable is controlled, the correlation between the mediator variable and the dependent
variable should be significant. Finally, the indirect effect of the independent variable
on the dependent variable must be significant. To test the mediation effects, we used
the PROCESS macro for SPSS (Hayes, 2013) by entering the discussion incivility
variable (0 = civil; 1 = uncivil) as an independent variable, moral indignation toward
like- and unlike-minded partner as two mediator variables, and each of the four outcome variables as a dependent variable into four separate mediation tests. In the model,
moral indignation toward like- and unlike-minded partners were treated as parallel
mediators in order to control potential mediation effects of moral indignation toward
the like-minded partner. Although we did not hypothesize mediation effects on outcome variables for the like-minded partner (i.e., recall of like-minded partner’s reasons, agreement with like-minded partner, and disagreement with like-minded partner),
we also ran three additional mediation tests in order to explore whether moral indignation may have mediation effects on them. We used 95% bias-corrected bootstrap confidence intervals based on 1,000 bootstrap samples to test the significance of indirect
effects: If the confidence interval does not contain zero then the indirect effect is considered to be statistically significant (Preacher & Hayes, 2008).
As seen in Table 2, experimental manipulation of discussion incivility had positive
effects on both moral indignation variables (b = 1.82, SE = .35, p < .001, for likeminded partner; b = 1.03, SE = .40, p < .01, for unlike-minded partner) but did not have
direct effects on any of the outcome variables after controlling the effects of mediators
on outcome variables, suggesting that the two moral indignation variables might fully
mediate the effects of incivility on outcome variables.
Mediation effects on discussion behaviors. H6a and H6b predicted mediation effects of
moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner on the relationships between discussion incivility manipulation and hostile discussion behaviors such as reduced
agreement expression and enhanced disagreement expression. The analyses supported
H6a and H6b. As seen in Table 2, indignation toward the unlike-minded partner was
not associated with expressions of agreement and disagreement with the like-minded
partner, but it was negatively associated with expression of agreement with the unlikeminded partner (b = −.07, SE = .03, p < .05) and positively associated with expression
of disagreement with the unlike-minded partner (b = .19, SE = .03, p < .001). In addition, the findings showed that the incivility manipulation had significant indirect
effects on both agreement and disagreement with the unlike-minded partner through
moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner (effect = −.08, bootstrap SE = .06,
Hwang et al. 229
95% CI [−.23, −.01] for the indirect effect on expression of agreement with the unlikeminded partner; effect = .24, bootstrap SE = .09, 95% CI [.09, .43] for the indirect
effect on expression of disagreement with the unlike-minded partner). In contrast,
moral indignation toward the like-minded partner was not associated with the four
expression variables. In sum, the findings suggest that emotional reactions toward the
like-minded partner were not associated with discussion behavior variables, whereas
indignation toward the unlike-minded partner triggered by exposure to uncivil discussion enhances defensive bolstering behaviors such as reduced agreement with the
opposing views as well as increased disagreement with the opposing views.
Mediation effects on reason recall. As predicted in H6c, the results confirmed that moral
indignation toward the unlike-minded partner had a mediating effect on recall of the
unlike-minded partner’s reasons. The findings showed that moral indignation toward
the unlike-minded partner was positively associated with recall of the reasons for the
unlike-minded partner’s arguments (b = .14, SE = .03, p < .001). In addition, the incivility manipulation had a significant indirect effect on the outcome variable through
moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner (effect = .14, bootstrap SE = .06),
as the bias-corrected bootstrap confidence interval for the indirect effect was entirely
above zero (.04-.30). The findings also revealed that moral indignation toward the
unlike-minded partner was positively associated with recall of the like-minded
Table 2. Regression Analyses: Effects of Incivility and Moral Indignation.
Moral indignation
Moral indignation
Like-minded partner 1.82 (.35)*** .12***
Unlike-minded partner 1.03 (.40)*** .03***
Outcome variables
Agreement expression
Like-minded partner −0.01 (.21) −0.06 (.06) 0.02 (.04) .01
Unlike-minded partner −0.12 (.18) 0.05 (.04) −0.07 (.03)* .05*
Disagreement expression
Like-minded partner 0.17 (.12) 0.02 (.03) −0.04 (.02) .02
Unlike-minded partner 0.37 (.19) 0.04 (.04) 0.19 (.03)*** .19***
Reason recall
Like-minded partner −0.35 (.21)*** 0.01 (.04) 0.17 (.04)*** .11***
Unlike-minded partner 0.22 (.18)*** 0.01 (.03) 0.14 (.03)*** .13***
Open-mindedness −0.38 (.33)*** −0.02 (.06) −0.13 (.05)*** .04***
Note. Cell entries are unstandardized regression coefficients with standard errors in parentheses.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
230 Communication Research 45(2)
partner’s reasons (b = .17, SE = .04, p < .001), and the indirect effect via the moral
indignation toward the like-minded partner was statistically significant (effect = .14,
bootstrap SE = .06, 95% CI [.05, .36]). In contrast, neither of the two outcome variables of reason recall was significantly associated with moral indignation toward the
like-minded partner, and the indirect effects on recall of the two partners’ reasons
through moral indignation toward the like-minded partner were not significant. In
sum, the findings clearly indicate that negative emotional reactions toward the unlikeminded partner spurred by discussion incivility elicit cognitive reflection on both sides
of the issue, resulting in enhanced recall of the reasons for disagreeable views as well
as the reasons for agreeable views.
Mediation effect on open-mindedness. As predicted in H6d, the findings confirmed a
significant mediation effect of indignation toward the unlike-minded partner on the
relationship between discussion incivility and decrease of open-mindedness. As Table
2 shows, an increase in indignation toward the unlike-minded partner led to a decline
of open-mindedness toward oppositional views (b = −13, SE = .05, p < .05). The indirect effect of incivility on open-mindedness through indignation toward the unlikeminded partner was statistically significant (effect = −.14, bootstrap SE = .08, 95% CI
[−.37, −.02]). Again, neither the direct effect of moral indignation toward the likeminded partner nor indirect effect through indignation toward the like-minded partner
on open-mindedness was statistically significant. Taken together, the findings suggest
that exposure to uncivil discussion leads to close-mindedness toward disagreeable
views mainly through heightened moral indignation toward the one holding the opposite view rather than through indignation toward the one holding the supported view.
Exposure to disagreement has both constructive and destructive potential for deliberative democracy. This study investigated under what conditions political discussion
leads to hostile rather than deliberative reactions by experimentally manipulating the
tone of other discussion participants’ expressions of disagreement with the opposing
view. Focusing specifically on the motivational role of “moral indignation” as a mediator of the effects of uncivil discussion on disconfirmation bias in cognitions, attitudes, and discussion behaviors, this study examines whether, why, and how uncivil
discussion has negative effects on deliberative processes.
Regarding cognitive effects of discussion incivility, our findings revealed that participants remembered more reasons for the like-minded partner’s arguments than reasons for the unlike-minded partner’s arguments and such recall of agreeable reasons
was stable across incivility conditions. Consistent with prior studies on the effects of
incivility and negative political campaign ads (Brooks & Geer, 2007; Chang, 2001),
the results also showed that exposure to uncivil attacks during the discussion had some
beneficial effects on participants’ cognitive reflection on disagreeable views by showing that participants in the incivility condition recalled significantly more reasons for
the unlike-minded partner’s arguments than those in the civility condition.
Hwang et al. 231
Although exposure to uncivil attacks during the discussion can grab participants’
attention to the unlike-minded discussion partner’s arguments and thus increase recall
and awareness of reasons for the opposing views, the overall results support scholars’
concerns about the detrimental effects of incivility on intergroup emotions, discussion
behaviors, and attitudes. As we conceive of moral indignation as an emotional reaction
to the violation of moral codes based on the cognitive appraisal theories of emotions,
our findings indicated that participants felt stronger moral indignation (e.g., anger,
disgust, and contempt) toward both the like- and unlike-minded discussion partners
when they attacked the other side of the issue in an uncivil way. These findings have
parallels to the literature on political attack ads that mudslinging can increase negative
evaluations of both candidates (e.g., Fridkin & Kenney, 2004). The findings also
showed that discussion incivility had corrosive effects on discussion behaviors toward
the unlike-minded discussion partners (i.e., increased expression of disagreement and
reduced expression of agreement) and decreased open-mindedness toward the opposing views, indicating that discussion incivility intensifies outgroup hostility. However,
the findings indicated that neither agreement nor disagreement expression toward the
like-minded partner were influenced by discussion incivility, suggesting that discussion incivility did have greater negative impacts on behaviors and attitudes toward
outgroup members than ingroup members.
In line with the functional theories of emotions (see Nabi, 1999, 2002) and study findings on motivated reasoning and disconfirmation bias (Edwards & Smith, 1996; Kunda,
1987, 1990; Lee et al., 2014; Taber & Lodge, 2006), our findings also showed that moral
indignation resulting from uncivil attacks spurs an individual’s defensive cognition, attitudes, and discussion behaviors. In terms of individuals’ cognitive reflection and attitudes, our findings revealed that moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner
was positively associated with recall of reasons for not only the unlike-minded partners’
arguments but also the like-minded partner’s arguments, suggesting that moral indignation heightens argument scrutiny and careful processing, in general. As we conceive that
moral indignation is an emotional motivator for defensive goals based on the functional
theory of emotions, such enhanced cognitive reflection and in-depth processing of information resulting from moral indignation seems to be a consequence of hostile reasoning
rather than deliberative reasoning. In fact, our findings indicated that moral indignation
toward the unlike-minded partner increased defensive bolstering in attitudes (i.e.,
decreased open-mindedness) and discussion behaviors (i.e., decreased expression of
agreement with the unlike-minded partner and increased expression of disagreement
with the unlike-minded partner). Analyses for mediation effects provided evidence
showing mediating effects of moral indignation toward the unlike-minded partner on
reason recall, discussion behaviors, and open-mindedness.
The findings concerning the relationships of moral indignation with discussion incivility and cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral outcomes for deliberation will contribute
to broadening our knowledge of the role of emotions in the deliberative process. The
findings suggest that negative moral emotions may be potent psychological factors motivating citizens to take a hostile stance toward disagreeable views in response to uncivil
behaviors of unlike-minded discussion partners. Furthermore, the findings provide
232 Communication Research 45(2)
implications that injustice-incited righteous anger, such as moral indignation, may give
rise to social motives and actions of speaking for their views. Although the role of emotions in deliberative processes has been mostly ignored or even regarded as a negative
force to be suppressed for effective deliberation, research on negative emotions such as
moral indignation as well as other emotions such as enthusiasm and anxiety (e.g.,
Marcus, 2002; Marcus, Neuman, & Mackuen, 2000) can help our understanding of the
psychological mechanisms that explain reactions to differing views during discussion.
Our findings about the different effects of exposure to uncivil attacks on internal
cognitive reflection versus intergroup emotions, attitudes, and discussion behaviors
are particularly noteworthy. It appears that exposure to uncivil discussion increases
awareness of the other side’s reasons, which has been treated as an indicator of successful deliberation (e.g., Price et al., 2006). However, our findings also show that
exposure to uncivil discussion may have detrimental effects on emotions, attitudes,
and behaviors toward the other side. Given that exposure to opposing views does naturally increase awareness and/or knowledge about opposing views, these findings suggest that socio-interpersonal outcomes can serve as more conclusive indicators of
whether the processing of opposing views is deliberative or hostile.
However, our findings must be viewed with caution. First, because they were
obtained from a convenience sample, these findings may not be directly generalizable
to the general public. Compared with the general public, undergraduate students may
have different levels of party identity strength, interest in controversial issues such as
the withdrawal from Iraq, and different stances on the issues, which may affect our
estimates of the effect of exposure to uncivil debate on discussion behaviors and deliberative attitude. Over-representation of female participants and pro-withdrawal participants in our sample could also affect findings of the current study. For example,
given that men and women are different in their communication styles and interactional norms (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003), they may have different normative expectations and thus may judge and respond to others’ uncivil behaviors differently. In this
regard, whether and how uncivil behaviors can be judged differently depending on
individual factors including gender as well as contextual factors should be considered
essential topics of interest for future related investigations.
Second, we should also admit that online discussion settings of the study did not
approximate those of real political discussion in which participants interactively communicate with others. Although we intentionally created discussion settings in which
expression of disagreement and incivility of the two simulated chatters were not directed
at the experimental participants in order to control unwanted variability in received messages from discussion partners, the artificiality of such a controlled discussion setting
can inevitably limit the generalizability of the study findings to real political discussion
settings. Given that negative reactions are intensified when the uncivil expressions are
targeting the self or ingroup (Kinney & Segrin, 1998), it may substantially change the
dynamic of the discussion and the participants’ discussion behaviors if the simulated
chatters directly commented on the participants’ views. In a similar vein, influences of
uncivil expression attacking the like-minded partner may be contingent on participants’
identification with the like-minded people and/or importance of their issue attitude,
which may increase the possibility that participants perceive the uncivil attacks on the
Hwang et al. 233
like-minded partner’s views as personal attacks. Although we believe that absence of
direct comments on the participants’ views might lead to underestimation rather than
over-estimation of the hypothesized relationships, future related investigations testing
the potential roles of direct comments on study participants’ views, group identity, and
attitude importance are required to address these remaining questions.
Finally, the measurement of key variables such as open-mindedness and moral
indignation is limited. With regard to the measure of open-mindedness, we used participants’ self-reported answers about change in open-mindedness after the discussion.
Perhaps the best way to measure changes in open-mindedness would be to measure
pre- and post-manipulation levels of open-mindedness and compare any changes in
the values of the two measures. However, subject report of increase in open-mindedness has some validity in the current research context. Given that the main purpose of
measuring change in open-mindedness is to test how participants’ discussion experience influenced their attitudes toward the opposing side, participants’ subjective feeling of change in open-mindedness has its own value for such purpose.
Despite some limitations and unsolved, nuanced questions, however, two features
bolster the value of the present study. It provides a methodological innovation for testing causal relationships between deliberative conditions and outcomes. Deliberative
theorists have argued that deliberation requires a host of conditions before it can offer
its putative benefits for healthy democracy. Unfortunately, we still do not know what
conditions are essential to effective deliberation due to lack of solid empirical evidence for the effects of theoretical conditions. In fact, past researchers have tended to
assume deliberation is occurring because an effort has been made to create all of its
theoretical conditions (Ryfe, 2005). The common problem of this approach is that
when theoretical benefits are not found from the assumed deliberation settings of the
research, researchers cannot identify what specific conditions lead to the null findings.
Instead, such null or negative findings are easily attributed to failure of their efforts to
create ideal conditions for deliberation without making a theoretical contribution to
the understanding of when and how deliberation actually works (Mutz, 2008).
For this reason, this study employed the opposite approach, empirically testing the
causal effects of two theoretical conditions (i.e., exposure to disagreeable views and
exposure to uncivil expression) on deliberative outcomes emphasized by experimentally manipulating discursive incivility. Although the conditions manipulated in the
studies are very crude and cannot capture everything that deliberative theories recommend, this simple manipulation does allow us to examine how exposure to discussion
incivility from an opposing discussion partner causes hostile reactions instead of deliberative reactions. At the current stage of empirical research, we have many more questions than answers concerning conditions of deliberative democracy. As Mutz (2008)
suggested, middle-range research such as the current study, which aims at isolating
causal effects of conditions and determining how citizens interact with others, should
greatly enhance our understanding of how and when deliberation actually works.
Furthermore, addressing concerns about the lack of explanation of the psychological
mechanisms underlying the effects of conditions of deliberation (Mutz, 2008;
Wesolowska, 2007), this study also attempts to theorize a linkage among discussion
incivility, cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors based on theories and empirical studies
234 Communication Research 45(2)
on social psychology by looking at the mediating role of “moral indignation.” We
believe that research efforts testing normative deliberative theory with empirical studies and theories in other fields such as group dynamics, persuasion, and information
processing will broaden our knowledge and understanding of social and psychological
mechanisms for explaining individuals’ cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral reactions
to fellow citizens’ views during discussion.
Although this study did not attempt to create an ideal situation for deliberation nor test
deliberation theory per se, these findings have important implications for theories of
deliberation specifically and political discussion generally. In sum, the study provided
strong evidence that discussion incivility has negative effects on deliberative outcomes by
spurring moral indignation rather than deliberative reactions to oppositional views. Of
course, contention and competition between different voices are part and parcel of public
deliberation. However, when such conflict and competition lead to moral indignation,
political discussion may end up as acrimonious debate instead of deliberative discussion.
Such moral indignation toward the other side of an issue formed by individuals’ personal
experience in a specific discussion may lead to negative outcomes in future discussions
with the other side. This is precisely the opposite of the “virtuous circle” of discussion,
mutual understanding, and engagement. Future research using similar methods should
explore how moral indignation resulting from a prior uncivil discussion experience also
influences individuals’ reactions to disagreeable views in a later discussion process.
Appendix A
Simulated online chat room.
Hwang et al. 235
Appendix B
Example Texts of Discussion Incivility Manipulation.
Civility Incivility
Sky i agree with administration officials that
some real progress is being made
i can’t stand listening to the shameless
administration officials’ propaganda that
some real progress is being made.
River sky do you mean we just simply pack
and leave now? i don’t think immediate
withdrawal is a good idea
sky do you mean we just simply pack and
leave now? immediate withdrawal is
ridiculous cowardly and very ill-thought
Sky river i don’t question the sincerity of
your belief that we sent our troops for
iraqi people.
i completely disagree with river’s belief
that we sent our troops for iraqi
River i agree with sky that oil thing is a
consideration for the Iraqi war, but . . .
sky, you are all crazy if you think that we
started the war only for an oil grab.
Sky i don’t disagree with all concerns of the
republicans in the article but i think
they need to admit the facts that . . .
What the chicken-hawk was completely
overlooking is that . . .
River the democrats need to consider what
we’ve successfully done in iraq besides
what we’ve failed.
the sneaky left-wing extremists
were blatantly ignoring what we’ve
successfully done in iraq
Appendix C
Coding of Agreement and Disagreement Expressions
Agreement expressions. Agreement was often expressed with explicit reference to a
discussion partner (e.g., “I agree with Sky/River,” “I am in accordance with Sky/River
. . .,” “I agree with Sky’s/River’s idea that . . .,” “As Sky/River said, I think . . .,” “Sky/
River, I also think . . .,” or “That is right, Sky/River”). We also coded statements
expressing support with something a prior simulated chatter had said as agreement
expressions. For example, if participants said “I agree (I also think) that we’ve lost too
many, the situation is not progressing any faster,” or “I also think that we need to pull
out of Iraq as soon as possible because it honestly does not seem like much has been
done” (after Sky said “We need to withdraw our troops as soon as possible. I think that
the overall Iraqi situation is getting worse and worse. Honestly how many more deaths
or our soldiers will it take to end this war?”), we coded these statement as agreement
with Sky.
Disagreement expressions. Statements that signaled disagreement with a simulated
chatter or ideas (reasons) a prior simulated chatter had expressed were coded as disagreement expressions. For example, participants often expressed disagreement with
explicit reference to a chatter such as “I disagree with Sky/River,” “I refute the
236 Communication Research 45(2)
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. The news story consisted of four paragraphs which presented pro- and anti-withdrawal
arguments of similar length. Study participants who reported that they had a neutral position on the issue during the pre-experiment online registration process (n = 28) were used
for a pilot test of evaluating slant of the news story (1 = strongly favorable to pro-withdrawal; 3 = neutral; 5 = strongly favorable to anti-withdrawal). Participants reported that
the news was slightly biased for pro-withdrawal (M = 2.96, SD = 1.13), but the reported
mean score was not statistically different from the neutral mid-point.
2. To examine whether the two simulated chatters’ expressions were perceived to be similar
in terms of argument quality and civility, a separate pilot test was performed with 28 participants who expressed a neutral position on the issue during the online registration process.
Participants were asked to evaluate two sets of arguments (i.e., pro-withdrawal arguments
from Sky and anti-withdrawal arguments from River), using a two-item, 11-point semantic
differential scale (i.e., extremely unreasonable (−5) − extremely reasonable (5); extremely
unpersuasive (−5) − extremely persuasive (5)). There was no significant difference in the
quality of Sky’s and River’s arguments (M = 1.32, SD = 2.40 for the set of Sky’s arguments;
M = 1.49, SD = 2.23 for the set of River’s arguments, p > .5). The participants were also
asked to evaluate civility of four sets of statements for civility manipulation (i.e., civil comments of Sky, civil comments of River, uncivil comments of Sky, and uncivil comments
of River) on an 11-point semantic differential scale (−5 (extremely uncivil) − 5 (extremely
civil)). Neither civil comments (M = 2.61, SD = 2.07 for Sky’s civil comments; M = 2.21,
SD = 2.67 for River’s civil comments, p > .5) nor uncivil comments of the two chatters
(M = −2.52, SD = 2.57 for Sky’s uncivil comments; M = −2.81, SD = 2.34 for River’s
uncivil comments, p > .5) were statistically different in perceived civility.
Arceneaux, K., Johnson, M., & Murphy, C. (2012). Polarized political communication, oppositional media hostility, and selective exposure. The Journal of Politics, 74, 174-186.
arguments Sky/River made,” “I am different from Sky/River,” “Sky/River, I don’t
think . . .,” or “That is not right, Sky/River.” A statement that indicates opposition with
ideas or reasons a prior simulated chatter had stated was also coded as disagreement
expression. For example, after River argued “We are helping stabilize Iraqi democracy
and I think democracy is worth fighting for,” a real participant said, “I don’t think it is
up to the United States to help their democracy, it is not worth it if we are losing
American lives”; this was coded as disagreement with River.
Hwang et al. 237
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Author Biographies
Hyunseo Hwang is an assistant professor in communication at the University of California,
Davis. His research interests center on the intersection of political communication and new
communication technologies.
Youngju Kim is a doctoral student in the College of Communication and Information Sciences
at the University of Alabama. Her research interests center on the intersection of new media and
political communication.
Yeojin Kim (PhD, University of Alabama) is an assistant professor in the Department of
Communication at Central Connecticut State University. Her fields of interest are new media
and strategic communication.

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