Faculty Research Grants in Action: Brendan Nyhan

Supported by Rockefeller Center funding, Professor Brendan Nyhan has conducted detailed research within the Government Department focused on two subject areas: political scandal and public misinformation.

Nyhan began his first project in 2010 and, since then, has examined how political processes are affected by influences such as scandal, corruption, external circumstances, and news released by the media of the time. The Rockefeller Center’s support enabled Nyhan to hire undergraduate research assistants to collect, process, and code data surrounding public corruption. These students gathered data from a public electronic record system for the federal courts. By identifying defendants charged with public corruption, matching these characters to cases, and examining news coverage to determine whether these defendants were public officials or known partisans, these students collected data that was later used to investigate the possibility of disproportionate treatment of defendants.

“This data was essential to my research,” says Nyhan. “The only way to know whether there was a partisan bias at the time was to find out who the defendants were in relevant federal court cases – public information that required a labor intensive data gathering process.”

Nyhan’s research assistants continue to aid his research efforts past this data collection task. Five years after its initial development, this project is still progressing forward.

Once again granted funding from the Rockefeller Center in the spring of 2015, Nyhan today is planning to begin intensive research on a second project regarding misconceptions. His central question asks why people believe things in the world that are not true. After studying political misinformation in the United States for years and teaching a course at Dartmouth titled Political Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories, Nyhan grew inspired to study factors that lead people to believe these theories.

Nyhan’s past research in the United States has focused on controversial partisan and health-related misperceptions. With his co-author, Thomas Zeitzoff of American University, Nyhan has studied conspiracy theories prevalent in Israel regarding events surrounding the Palestinian exodus. Today, Nyhan’s research focuses on why people believe conspiracy theories widely in the Middle East, particularly those about the United States. Nyhan hopes to gain a better understanding of the psychological conditions that make people more vulnerable to these beliefs.

“The Rockefeller Center’s funding in the past enabled me to work with some fantastic Dartmouth undergraduates, which I think is one of the best parts of working here,” says Nyhan. “Thanks to their support, I can once again move forward with my research in another area.”

-Written by Nikita Bakhru ’17, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Communication and Student Outreach