Politics, perception, and percussion

Each Election Day, many American keep their eyes glued to their television or phone for the latest results. Few watch more closely than Interlochen Arts Camp alumnus Dr. Jon Krosnick (IAC/NMC 69-76, UNIV 77).

Krosnick, a political psychologist and Stanford University professor, specializes in the psychology of voters and elections. For the past 30 years, Krosnick has studied the impact of media coverage on voter choices, public perception of global warming, how the order of candidate names on the ballot affects voter behavior, and other American political opinions.

While Krosnick spends his days conducting research, lecturing at Stanford and working as an independent consultant, his evenings are devoted to music. He’s also a professional percussionist and performs as one-third of the jazz trio Charged Particles. “I really have three careers,” Krosnick said. “I’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities in all areas of my life.”

Krosnick’s multifaceted career was influenced from an early age by his parents’ the diverse interests. Krosnick’s father, a physician, instilled in him an interest in the sciences. His mother, an opera aficionado and singer, ensured her children’s study of music.

When Krosnick was only nine years old, his mother discovered the National Music Camp and signed her son up for a summer as a piano major. While at the Camp, Krosnick participated in the talent exploration course, a program designed to introduce young campers to a variety of musical instruments. “Once we got to percussion, that really grabbed my attention,” Krosnick said. “When I got back to school in the fall, I started taking group drum lessons. But my real music education was every summer at Interlochen.”

Krosnick switched his focus to percussion during his subsequent summers at Interlochen. In the summer of 1972, while Krosnick was an intermediate camper, Stan Kenton and his orchestra were invited to play at Interlochen. Kenton’s performance was a monumental moment for Interlochen—Kenton was the first jazz artist to play at the institution—but it was equally monumental for Krosnick. “It opened me up to a new way of hearing,” he said. “The critical part of the Kenton experience is that it was that performance that was the debut of Peter Erskine. I was electrified by his drumming.”

Krosnick described the performance to his father upon his return home to New Jersey, sharing Erskine’s impact on him and expressing an interest in learning to play jazz. Krosnick’s father fostered his son’s newfound interest by purchasing several jazz records. He also recognized the surname “Erskine”: Peter’s father, Fred Erskine, was also a New Jersey-based physician. “My dad said, ‘There’s a listing of every physician in New Jersey, so let’s look up Fred Erskine, give him a call and see if Peter would give you a lesson,’” Krosnick said. “I ended up spending a weekend with Peter in Bloomington, Indiana. He took care of me, welcomed me, and gave me some lessons, but mostly we just talked and listened to music. That experience cemented my commitment to jazz.”

Krosnick continued to study at Interlochen for the next five years, working his way into the World Youth Symphony Orchestra and serving as the principal player for several weeks each summer. During those high school years, Krosnick would play shoulder-to-shoulder with future professional percussionists Theresa Dimond (IAC/NMC 72-76), J. William Hudgins (IAC/NMC 74-75) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Christopher Lamb (AS 72-74, IAC/NMC 75) of the New York Philharmonic). He also joined the Camp’s new jazz offerings, earning the 1974 National Music Camp Jazz Studies Scholarship for his aptitude.

While Krosnick excelled in percussion during his summers at Interlochen, he was a keen math and science student at school, and enrolled at Harvard University as a biochemistry major upon his high school graduation. Finding he had extra room in his schedule during his first semester at Harvard, Krosnick signed up for a political science course.

“When I got to the first lecture, there were about 400 kids in an auditorium, I sat in the back and I was intimidated about everything,” Krosnick said. “At end of lecture, the professor asked a few of the students—including me—to come up and talk to him. He said, ‘you guys are freshmen, and you’re not really prepared to take this class. You can take it another time.’ I thought, ‘I could look for another course, but this seems interesting,’ so I decided to stick it out. Using science to study people seemed a lot more interesting than using science to study molecules, so I dropped my major in biochemistry and switched over to psychology.”

Krosnick’s chosen concentration, political psychology, presented a unique challenge: students of the field had to master the literature of both political science and social psychology. At the time, the two disciplines were viewed as two separate fields despite the fact that they often conducted similar research. “If you were to have taken a social psychology course in 1980s, there would be a chapter in your book about aggression, but it turns out that political scientists had done a lot of research on aggression in the context of wars,” Krosnick said. “The two disciplines were siloed from each other, and there was no expectation that a psychology student would read political science literature and vice versa. This was a little silly, because the work that has been done across disciplines was all trying to understand the same actions.”

One of Krosnick’s major research interests is the effect of media coverage on public perception. Krosnick’s 30-year study of the topic has seen significant changes in the way Americans consume—and in turn, are affected by—media. “When I started off trying to study how Americans form opinions about politics, the world was simpler: there were three news networks, and everybody was watching same anchors,” he said. “There was a lot of homogeneity. If you read the New York Times in the morning, you knew what ABC was going to say that night. Americans were kind of getting one message about how to interpret events. Over the years, what we’ve seen is this shift towards a bouquet of numerous options for learning about the world around us. There are differences in the agendas of various media and how the media outlets cover the same events. Social media afford opportunities for lots of voices to address opinions. Now, there’s a matter of selective exposure. People can choose to expose themselves to sources of information that are likely to reinforce their world views, and as a result, there’s a growing distaste for people who disagree with you.”

As society evolved, so did Krosnick’s research interests. Krosnick became interested in not only scientific research itself, but how scientific research is conducted. “In academic literature, there were some horrifying tragedies that occured in terms of scholarship,” Krosnick said. “There were times when scholars published big books that were important, and it turned out after the fact that, when they looked again, they had made an unfortunate error in how they measured their data. People do the best they can. As we continue to study, we gain better understanding and we correct the record.”

Krosnick noticed a trend in the mistakes that were being made. “It was striking to me, in a number of cases, that measurement mistakes were made not realizing the psychology of how people answer questions,” Krosnick said. “Small changes in the structure of a question can change the answer.” As a result, Krosnick began a comprehensive study of survey methodology. Today, after years of study, he offers seminars on survey methodology and survey research methods with the goal of increasing the validity of scientific research.

Krosnick also identified another possible source of inaccuracy. “I stumbled into satisficing, which is when survey respondents agree to participate, but don’t respond seriously or accurately,” Krosnick said. “When you stumble into discovery, you get addicted to work in that area.”

Today, Krosnick’s work on survey methodology and public perception has earned him consulting roles with the Census Bureau, Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and various corporations. He also testifies as an expert witness in cases where surveys are used as evidence. Despite his busy schedule, music is still a priority. “The incentive to find time to squeeze music in is powerful, as it’s such a source of joy,” Krosnick said.

Krosnick has a sympathetic collaborator in his Charged Particles bandmate, Murray Low, who is also a Stanford professor. The trio, which also includes full-time performer Aaron Germain, still manages to find time for an active touring schedule, with destinations including Indonesia and New York City’s famed Birdland club.

“I credit Interlochen with each one of those smiles: playing every note in the right place, creating energy or being in a van driving to next gig,” Krosnick said. “Interlochen gave me the skills to play, understand and work with others.”

And each November, Krosnick will again be working with others as he studies the current election cycle. As you take your place in the polling booth, know that your vote is more than the fulfillment of your civic duty—it’s a piece of data for political scientists like Krosnick.