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The Politics of Attention

How Government Prioritizes Problems

On any given day, policymakers are required to address a multitude of problems and make decisions about a variety of issues, from the economy and education to health care and defense. This has been true for years, but until now no studies have been conducted on how politicians manage the flood of information from a wide range of sources. How do they interpret and respond to such inundation? Which issues do they pay attention to and why? Bryan D. Jones and Frank R. Baumgartner answer these questions on decision-making processes and prioritization in The Politics of Attention.

Analyzing fifty years of data, Jones and Baumgartner’s book is the first study of American politics based on a new information-processing perspective. The authors bring together the allocation of attention and the operation of governing institutions into a single model that traces public policies, public and media attention to them, and governmental decisions across multiple institutions. 

The Politics of Attention offers a groundbreaking approach to American politics based on the responses of policymakers to the flow of information. It asks how the system solves, or fails to solve, problems rather than looking to how individual preferences are realized through political action.

304 pages | 62 line drawings, 17 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Public Policy


“Jones and Baumgartner have become a genre, the leading scholars of a science of policymaking. This is a major scholarly achievement.”--James Stimson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

James Stimson

The Politics of Attention moves the classic debate over the character and value of democratic politics to new and more solid ground. In recognizing that political elites are subject to limited attention spans and constrained information-processing, just as are mass citizens, Jones and Baumgartner argue that the great attraction of representative democracy is the way in which it corrects for the limitations of both elites and mass electorates. With these arguments and supportive data, this pioneering book provides perhaps the most persuasive explanation yet of the adaptive resilience of pluralist democracies. The result is a landmark contribution to research on elite decision-making, to the study of policy evolution in postwar America, and to democratic theory.”--Lawrence C. Dodd, University of Florida

Lawrence C. Dodd

“A terrific book. Based on a decade of meticulous data collection, The Politics of Attention descriptively presents a macroscopic overview of fifty years of American policy development in congressional agenda formation and decision making. The payoff of this impressive empirical exercise is a fresh focus on and understanding of policy punctuations.”--John Padgett, University of Chicago

John Padgett

"An important and timely work."

M. C. Price, Texas A&M University | Choice

"This excellent book provides an enlightening glimpse into and important topic: how information is used in politics and how it is prioritised. . . . It is provocative, challenging and insightful, making a valuable contribution to politics and constitutional law."

Ya-Hui Kuo | Significance

"The book illustrates the continuing development of the punctuated equilibrium model of policy change and the diversity of issues that the model provides leverage in explaining."

Scott E. Robinson | Political Science Quarterly

"Without a doubt, this book will be very useful in graduate seminars. It touches on many of the biggest ideas in social science, ranging from theories of individual behavior and rationality, to ’middle level’ phenomena like political organizations, to the highest level, institutions and policy change. It is also written beautifully."

Paul E. Johnson | Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents

1. How Government Processes Information and Prioritizes Problems
Part I - Information and Choice
2. A Behavioral Model of Policy Choice
3. The Intrusion of New Information
Part II - Information Processing and Policy Punctuations
4. "Understandable Complexity" in Policy Choice
5. Incrementalism, Disproportionate Information-Processing, and Outcomes
6. Cognitive Architectures, Institutional Costs, and Fat-Tailed Distributions
7. Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions
Part III - Signal Detection and the Inefficiencies of Agenda Setting
8. Agenda Setting and Objective Conditions
9. The Inefficiencies of Attention Allocation
10. Representation and Attention
11. Conclusions

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