Monday, May 14, 2007

Son of Recall vs Recognition

Begin preachy sermon ...

I admit I find fascinating the whole recall versus recognition thing in how we measure political knowledge. Very nearly all of our "tests" of knowledge are of recall: who is the president of Russia? what party controls Congress? name the judges on American Idol?

We know from decades of research that people who rely on TV for news perform miserably on standard political knowledge tests. Hell, there is some evidence that the more you watch TV the less you know about public affairs, an effect we carefully dubbed cog-sucking, as in sucking out cognitions (thinking). You gotta pronounce that one with some care.

But what it really comes down to is this -- watching TV does not translate well into tests of recall. Recognition? Maybe so.

So why don't more scholars use recognition tests? In part because they seem too easy, and in part because we are print-oriented, and newspaper reading is about the only media use item that is consistently related to how much of a clue you have to what is happening in the least by tests of, you guessed it, recall.

Watching TV is inadvertent, haphazard exposure. You see a little here, a little there, while doing other stuff. You pick up the news in bits and, if you know a little background, try to file it away in the right cubbyhole of longterm memory. If you don't know a lot, then relying only on TV means you think you know when actually you only vaguely remember what's going on.

You may sense this every day as a "feeling of knowing" or the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, when you almost know an answer but can't quite pull it out of your head. Recognition will measure this almost ability, recall will not. As more and more of the world gets its news from bits and pieces of TV and the Internet, we may see a dramatic decrease in how people do on recall tests.

So maybe it's time we started using more recognition tests and getting a sense of how "almost knowing" is integrated in how we form or maintain attitudes about candidates, about issues, about stuff that matters.

... end of my preachy sermon.

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