Class of 2023: Curtis Bram and Trustworthiness

Curtis Bram graphic with Congress

When Curtis Bram was working in investment banking in Tokyo, he was not particularly focused on the trustworthiness of political institutions. But when he began his Ph.D. studies in the Duke Department of Political Science, he started thinking about what changes people expect politicians to deliver, where those expectations come from, and how they might be different.

One theme in his research is the idea that people exaggerate the differences between themselves and their political opponents because of a psychological bias called focalism, which causes people to confuse how much attention they give things with the importance of those things.

In politics, people are typically paying attention to conflict, so the result is an overestimation of differences across the partisan divide.

Bram wanted to study how people might moderate their beliefs about politics, so he partnered with Ground News, which offers one of the top 10 most downloaded newspaper applications on the iOS store. He conducted two studies. In the first, he randomized their emailed newsletter and showed that, for some political issues, reading a story that was ignored or buried by the reader's partisan side can reduce issue polarization and moderate issue positions.

In the second study Bram randomly recruited new users to the Ground News app and he found that when people chose to pay attention to the kinds of news stories covered by centrist sources — not those emphasized by more partisan outlets — people may feel more positive toward their political opponents.

As a result of this work, Bram will be featured in the upcoming documentary “Trustworthy.”

At Duke, Bram has furthered his research as a member of the Worldview Lab, publishing papers along the way. The Monkey Cage writeup of one article, "When a conspiracy theory goes mainstream, people feel more positive toward conspiracy theorists," became the seventh most read article in 2022 on the Washington Post's blog.

One of the unexpected contributions Bram made to the political science department grew out of his recurring commitment to the development and teaching of the Professional Development in Political Science course for undergraduates.

Over the years, Bram mentored and introduced undergraduates to a range of alumni and career professionals who were using political science in applied spaces. Bram's approach to teaching this course improved each year and the best practices from his instruction are now published to help political science instructors across the country develop trustworthiness in the career prospects for political science majors.

Curtis Bram graduates from Duke in spring 2023 and has accepted a tenure track position at the University of Texas at Dallas. He will be moving to Dallas with his fiancée and their three dogs in June.

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