The Limits of Facts in Citizen Decision-Making

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1 Fall 2007 Special Orders The Limits of Facts in Citizen Decision-Making James H. Kuklinski University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Upon reading the literature on public opinion, one might conclude that the essential role of citizens in democratic societies is to derive objective policy judgments from available evidence. Indeed, the study of what citizens know about politics and policy has proliferated since Converse wrote his The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics in From this perspective, people who possess much information about a proposed or existing policy make better choices than those who possess little. Since most people know little about politics and public policy, the story goes, most perform sub-optimally when it comes to reaching sound, objective judgments. As an alternative to the perspective that makes the informed citizen the standard and the uninformed citizen the storyline, I offer three propositions, a few paradoxes, and a speculation. The propositions are as follows: Although people are sometimes uninformed, they are often misinformed; they hold grossly inaccurate factual beliefs but confidently assume to know the facts. This misinformation serves as a bigger obstacle to evidence-based decision-making than the lack of information. There is little scholarly evidence to support the widely-held assumption that people will use the facts if they know them. To the contrary, they often employ mental gymnastics to avoid the implications of facts that challenge their political views. The need to interpret policy-relevant facts provides an opportunity, and partisan identification often serves as an incentive, to use such gymnastics. When evaluating policy options, people are essentially asked to predict future consequences of each option. This requirement introduces many unknowns and thus considerable uncertainty into the decision-making process. The paradoxes are as follows: Those who are best equipped to use information objectively will also be least inclined to do so if that information challenges their existing political views. This is because they know how to refute the challenging information. Page 1 of 6

2 People will be least likely to use factual information objectively when such information is most readily available. This is because the media heighten party loyalty at the very time they most widely disseminate information. The factual evidence that would be most helpful to citizens when they are evaluating policy options the future consequences of each option does not exist. The speculation follows from the propositions. It takes this form: True political opinions are far more prevalent than the prevailing perspective, as convincingly formulated by John Zaller suggests. 2 Confidently Holding (the Wrong) Factual Beliefs That most citizens know little about politics is arguably the most celebrated conclusion in the public opinion literature. Larry Bartels words are among the most memorable: The political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics. 3 How could it be otherwise? Many citizens, after all, confess not to care about politics and to lack interest in ongoing policy debates. However, knowing the facts is not a prerequisite to holding factual beliefs. If that were the case, few people could lay claim to their factual beliefs. Most of the time, most citizens can easily believe what they want to believe, right or wrong. Only under extreme circumstances, such as the intense reporting of U.S. casualties during an international conflict, does it become difficult to avoid factual reality. Even then, it is not impossible. Apparently, holding the wrong factual beliefs comes close to being a national pastime. Most Americans overestimate the percentage of the national population that consists of Jews, Hispanics, or African Americans, or the percentage of the population that is on welfare 4 Although some survey respondents admit that they do not know the answers, they comprise a small percentage of all respondents. 5 It is one thing to hold the wrong factual beliefs; it is quite another to know confidently that those beliefs are right. 6 Yet the latter is precisely what many Americans report to survey interviewers. Moreover, those who hold the most inaccurate factual beliefs tend to express the most confidence in them. What drives these misinformed beliefs? Sometimes it is partisanship; sometimes it is racial stereotyping; and, we will suggest later, it might be the political opinions that people hold. In light of these likely sources, it stands to reason that citizens will not want to change their erroneous beliefs. In fact, giving people the right factual information does not lead them to correct their mistaken beliefs. They either refuse to change them at all or change them only temporarily. 7 Political scientists cannot say with certainty how widespread misinformation is. Few surveys ask respondents to indicate their confidence in their answers. Surprising as it might seem, neither can political scientists proclaim misinformation to be a significant problem in democratic societies. If partisan affiliations, stereotypes, or existing political opinions shape the mistaken beliefs, rather than the other way around, then the misinformation is a manifestation of the problem, not the problem itself. Unfortunately, to disentangle cause and effect fringes on the impossible. The Knowing Equals Using Assumption Suppose that people know the relevant facts. Do they then use them to shape their opinions and judgments? If they do not, then categorizing citizens on the basis of their political knowledge alone will create more severe distinctions among them than are justified. The evidence that people use the information they possess is sparse. Political scientists conducted a preponderance of their research on citizens and information during a time when information processing dominated psychological theories. Borrowing directly from those theories, they assumed that information known is information used. This assumption is reflected in studies that compare the opinions of more and Page 2 of 6

3 less informed citizens. These studies take the opinions of the more informed as the standard by which to judge those of the less informed. 8 Only when the to-know-is-to-use assumption is met does designating the more informed as the standard make sense. But is it met? In recent years, psychologists have returned to the motivational aspects of decision-making that the information processing theories ignored. In particular, they have returned to the old and cherished notion that people are driven to hold consistent beliefs and opinions, and to the related notion that the desire for consistency increases with the intensity of engagement in a particular domain of life. 9 By implication, the highly engaged will be especially likely to reject information that challenges their existing views of the world. Following the example of psychologists, political scientists, too, have begun to (re)consider the place of motivation in decision-making. Consequently, they have shifted their attention to how the politically informed use, or do not use, the information they possess. In their pioneering experimental studies, Taber and Lodge show that the most partisan, and most politically sophisticated, members of society rarely use arguments and information objectively. 10 Instead, they construe arguments congruent with their prior opinions as stronger than incongruent arguments; they argue contrary arguments and bolster supporting arguments (a disconfirmation bias); and they seek out confirming evidence (a confirmation bias). Belief and opinion maintenance, not objectivity, served as the motivation for Taber and Lodge s strongly partisan and highly informed subjects. In a similar vein, across-time research that colleagues and I conducted during the Iraq conflict reveals that Democrats and Republicans interpreted the same factual evidence, such as the number of U.S. troop casualties and whether the United States had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so as to maintain their existing support of or opposition to the conflict. 11 Thus, for example, Democrats consistently construed the same number of troop casualties as higher than Republicans did. When it became clear that the United States would not find weapons of mass destruction, Democrats proclaimed that the weapons never existed whereas Republicans said that Iraq moved or destroyed them. Strong partisans were especially likely to exhibit these mental patterns. Although the (re)introduction of motivation into decision-making clearly raises questions about the assumption that people objectively use information when they possess it, it would be premature to reach any sweeping conclusions. Taber and Lodge s experiments cannot completely replicate the real-world political environment. International conflict is a unique domain; and the Iraq invasion and its aftermath quickly generated a partisan division that has intensified over time. Moreover, there must be limits beyond which even strong partisans no longer counter arguments and information that challenge their existing opinions; political scientists have not yet identified those limits. Nevertheless, political scientists can no longer assume that knowing and using are one and the same. Using Tomorrow s Facts Today Thus far, I have assumed the facts to be available, to be known and used if a citizen wants to know and use them. There is one common and important situation where knowing the facts is impossible: when policymakers are debating policy options and making predictions about the consequences of each option. If X passes, everyone will lose the freedom to choose physicians. If Y does not pass, the number of young children who die unnecessarily will increase dramatically. People are asked to choose among policy options without knowing the relevant facts that only the passage of time can provide. Therefore, much uncertainty attends any effort to judge competing policy alternatives. How, given this formidable task, can citizens make objective choices? They might identify the consequences of past policies that are similar to one or more of the options being debated. They might read the predictions of experts. Would all the political scientists who do one or the other please stand up? I doubt that many are standing. Page 3 of 6

4 Choosing among predictions requires a leap of faith. In whom are citizens most likely to place their faith? The parties with whom they identify, and who are debating the policy alternatives, would seem a logical choice. Paradoxes of Information and Partisan Politics Suppose that partisanship shapes whether and how citizens use available information. Suppose, furthermore, that the more heightened the partisanship, the more likely people will find ways to maintain their existing partisan-based opinions, especially in the face of challenging evidence. Then two paradoxes follow. First, those who are most likely to know the facts and to understand their implications for policy evaluation will also be least inclined to use them when the facts and arguments challenge their existing opinions and evaluations. The reason: the most informed and knowledgeable citizens are also among the most highly invested in partisan politics. Having psychologically committed themselves to one or another party, they will not allow a few contrary facts to undermine their parties efforts. Second, citizens will be least likely to use factual information objectively at the very peaks of its availability. These peaks will occur in two situations: when the competing parties are debating major policies and when the parties candidates are campaigning. In both situations, media coverage will be extensive. As a result, factual evidence will be more plentiful than usual, but so will references to the parties and their competing policy positions, which will remind people that they really are Democrats or Republicans. In a revealing study, Parker-Stephen demonstrates how the balance between partisanship and perceptions of the economy changes over a presidential campaign. 12 Prior to a campaign, strong Democrats and strong Republicans differ markedly in their perceptions of the nation s economic health, depending on which party occupies the White House. This gap remains throughout the campaign. The perceptions of weak Democrats and weak Republicans, which differed very little early on, differ more and more as the campaign progresses. By the end of the campaign, the gap in their perceptions approaches that among the strong partisans, despite the increased availability of economic data. A third paradox, perhaps more correctly described as a fact of political life, best captures the limits of factual evidence in politics and public policy-making: the very information that citizens would find most useful during policy debates the consequences of implementing the various policy options becomes available only after their elected representatives pursue one option over the others. And even then, of course, citizens see the consequences only of the chosen policy option. The consequences of the Bush administration s Iraq policies have been reported ad-nauseam. No one will ever know the current state of affairs if a different set of policies had been pursued. Factual Beliefs and Opinions According to the prevailing view of public opinion, explicated most fully by Zaller, people do not hold true opinions and attitudes. Rather, they respond to survey questions on the basis of whatever considerations happen to come to mind. These considerations, in turn, are a function of the interactions between elite communications on the one hand and an individual citizen s political awareness and willingness to accept those communications on the other. People who pay no attention to politics simply will not receive the elite communications. Among those who pay some attention, not everyone will accept the same messages. For example, liberal citizens will be inclined to accept liberal messages and reject conservative ones; conservative citizens will be inclined to do the opposite. Thus, when answering survey questions, both liberal and conservative citizens will sample from the set of considerations available to them, but the sets will differ. Zaller formally explicates this mental process in terms of his Receive-Accept-Sample Model. In his words, Opinion statements are the outcome of a process in which people receive new information, decide whether to accept it, and then sample at the moment of answering [survey] questions. 13 If factual beliefs work as I have described in the preceding sections, one might wonder whether people hold true political opinions to a greater extent than Zaller suggests. A plausible story is that people s opinions Page 4 of 6

5 drive their factual beliefs, or, perhaps more realistically, opinions and factual beliefs serve as mutually reinforcing elements in an individual s mental picture of politics and policy. Wawro raises this possibility in his recent essay, and nearly all of the research that colleagues and I have completed points to this conclusion. 14 In fact, some of Zaller s own findings support this thesis. Zaller provides empirical support for his Receive-Accept-Sample Model in the form of his stop-and-think experimental results, which he reports in the first half of his book. However, the second half, which relies on survey data, shows that liberals and conservatives (or Democrats and Republicans) consistently differ in their opinions. Moreover, the gap is especially great among the most politically aware or sophisticated citizens, just as Taber and Lodge and we have found. These patterns suggest that many people engage in partisan-based rationalization whereby their existing beliefs and opinions determine the considerations they accept and then later sample. If the alternative view that citizens hold true opinions has any validity at all, then trying to determine whether facts and arguments change opinions perhaps misses the point. Under some extreme circumstances, they might induce change. But under most circumstances, construing facts and arguments as the shaper of policy opinions requires a stronger assumption about causal direction than might be justified. Notes 1. Phillip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, in David E. Apter (ed.), Ideology and Discontent (New York: The Free Press, 1964). 2. John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992). 3. Larry Bartels, Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections, American Journal of Political Science 40 (1966): Jennifer L. Hochschild, Where You Stand Depends on What You See: Connections Among Values, Perceptions of Fact, and Political Prescriptions, in Citizens and Politics: Perspectives from Political Psychology, ed. James H. Kuklinski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Richard Nadeau, Richard G. Niemi, and Jeffrey Levine, Innumeracy about Minority Populations, Public Opinion Quarterly 57 (1993): ; James H. Kuklinski, Paul Quirk, Jennifer Jerit, David Schwieder, and Robert F. Rich, Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship, Journal of Politics 62 (2000): Michael X Delli Carpini and Scott O. Keeter, What Americans Know and Why It Matters (New Brunswick: Princeton University Press, 1996). 6. Kuklinski et al., Misinformation. 7. In their research on deliberative polls, Fishkin and Luskin have found that participants who change their opinions during the weekend deliberations frequently return to their original opinions shortly thereafter (personal communication from Professor Robert Luskin). 8. Scott L. Althaus, Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics: Opinion Surveys and the Will of the People (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Bartels, Uninformed Votes. 9. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston: Row, Peterson, and Company, 1957); Ziva Kunda, The Case for Motivated Reasoning, Psychological Bulletin 108 (1990): Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge, Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs, American Journal of Political Science 50 (2006): Brian J. Gaines, James H. Kuklinski, Paul J. Quirk, Buddy Peyton, and Jay Verkuilen, Same Facts, Different Interpretations: Partisan Motivation and Opinion on Iraq, Journal of Politics 69 (2007): But see Martin Gilens, Political Ignorance and Collective Policy Preferences, American Political Science Review 95 (2001): Evan Parker-Stephen, When Perceptions Polarize: How Motives, Information, and Campaigns Condition Learning and Inference, Working Paper (Texas A&M University, 2007). Page 5 of 6

6 13. Zaller, Mass Opinion, Gregory J. Wawro, The Rationalizing Public, Critical Review 18 (2006): James H. Kuklinski is Matthew T. McClure Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign. He is coeditor of the Cambridge University Press Series in Public Opinion and Political Psychology. His current research focuses on public opinion and the quality of citizen decision-making and the logic of experimental design. His address is Return to Contents Page 6 of 6

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