Using cognitive mapping to study the relationship between news exposure and cognitive complexity

Mark Boukes*, Femke A.W.J. Van Esch, Jeroen A. Snellens, Sebastiaan C. Steenman, Rens Vliegenthart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Cognitive complexity is a concept that allows scholars to distinguish unidimensional thinking from multidimensional thinking, which allows citizens to identify and integrate various perspectives of a topic. Especially in times of fake news, fact-free politics, and affective polarization, the news media would ideally foster such complex political understanding. The current paper introduces the method of cognitive mapping to measure cognitive complexity regarding citizens' understanding of the financial crisis, one of the most pressing political issues of the past decades. Linking content-analytic data to panel-survey data, we examine how exposure to news about the crisis relates to cognitive complexity. A wide variety of news sources (print, television, and online) were analyzed to take the high-choice media environment into account. Results show that news consumption generally is related to a less cognitively complex understanding of the financial crisis. However, actual exposure to news about the crisis (combined measurement of content analysis and survey data) is positively related to cognitive complexity, particularly among less-educated citizens. In addition, the most prominent topics in news coverage were more frequently associated with the financial crisis, as reflected in the cognitive maps of less-educated citizens exposed to more crisis news. These findings demonstrate the potential of news media to increase citizens' complexity of understanding, especially among the less educated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)599-628
Number of pages30
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes


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