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Xiaoxia Cao received a research fellowship from University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and completed her dissertation in 2010, receiving a PhD in Communication.
Cao's research focuses on media effects and media psychology. In particular, she explores the persuasive effects of media messages, and her research can be found in a variety of Communication and Public Opinion-related academic journals. Cao has also contributed writings to media outlets The Conversation  and Philanthropy Daily . She teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and sits as advisor on many students' thesis committees.
Professor Cao often uses randomized media exposure experimentations for her methods of knowledge-seeking. Cao's major contributions to the Social Psychology, Communication and Media Studies academic communities include:
- In the 2008 issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Cao overturned a common conception in communication scholarship that political comedy shows like The Daily Show discourage political participation. Others have argued that political comedy shows dissuade a person to engage in politics, on the basis that these shows make salient a quality of hopelessness to its viewers. Cao, however, always keen to use empirical methods of research, successfully found that political comedy shows actually increase the likelihood that viewers take up forms of political participation, whether it be voting, social media and interpersonal engagement, or contacting congressional representatives. 
- Watching The Daily Show with John Stewart (2010) positively related to increased political attentiveness (knowledge or awareness of political landscape) surrounding issues covered in Stewart's program, but only for those who initially tuned in to the program with low levels of political attentiveness. Her exposure experiment showed that Stewart's program did not typically increase political attentiveness for those already attentive. In essence, the findings help strengthen the argument that late night political talk shows like The Daily Show may act as a buffer into political discussion for newcomers, but does not often contribute to new knowledge to those already politically engaged. 
- Cao's 2010 dissertation from University of Pennsylvania explored the appeal to emotions in the media's representation of victims of chronic suffering. Her results found that exposure to media messages showcasing a victim's facial emotional expression induced empathetic concern in the viewer, but reduced perspective taking and did not contribute positively or negatively to favorable attitudes toward helping the victim. This finding is especially true for facial close-up frames of victim emotional expression.
- In the 2016 issue of the International Journal of Communication, Cao found that engagement with messages promoting government conspiracy theories increases long-lasting cynicism toward government. Randomized exposure to video messages promoting a government conspiracy increased the belief in said conspiracy AND, more importantly, in long-lasting distrust towards government. 
- In 2017, Cao conducted a survey finding that exposure to sad faces in charity foundation messages seeking donations increased the likelihood of contributing a donation, but only for those who typically do not contribute to charities. On the other hand, those who contribute more often to charities are more likely to donate again when exposed to charity advertisements with happy faces. In essence, "campaigns should use sad-faced ads to target people with weaker ties to charities. But for people with stronger connections, happy-faced ads may be a safer bet."