Friday, June 22, 2007

One Way to Get Better Knowledge

Want to improve the public's political knowledge? In a survey there are two really good methods for getting more correct answers, according to one study.
  • Give 'em more time to answer the question
  • Pay 'em for their trouble.

No, really. They work.

The resounding doh! you hear out there comes from any real people who read this blog is understandable, but this actually matters. It tells us something about the role of motivation, that people often can come up with correct answers about political knowledge if properly motivated. A random telephone call from a stranger asking if you can name your congresspersonthing is hardly a motivating moment.

The lesson? People are smarter about political knowledge than we think. That sounds good, but we (i.e., scholars) think very little of the public's knowledge, so there's plenty of room for improvement (in perception, that is).

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Gender Knowledge Gap

Men know more than women. That's a fairly universal finding in tests of political knowledge, a gender gap most scholars prefer to leave undiscussed.

There are a lot of potential explanations for the gender gap in what people know about public affairs. A study that attempts to answer at least some of the reasons for the gap makes for interesting reading. To quote the authors, "the gender disparity on political knowledge is large, and the gap persists in multivariate analyses." Translation: even if you statistically control for lots of other stuff like education, it's still there.

Okay, but why?

Rather than delve into the sociological waters of how boys and girls are raised and trained and brought into political life, the authors instead look at something more simple -- measurement.
Men are more reluctant to say they don't know when asked a survey question. Pluck out the "don't knows" and half of the gender knowledge gap disappears. Poof. Gone. And because men will try and answer you get a "guessing effect" in the results. There's a lot more here in the study, so check it out yourself.

Basically, we men don't ask directions and we don't say we "don't know" if asked a knowledge question on a survey. In both cases, we're willing to guess.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Chronic Know-Nothings

Hyman and Sheatsley in 1947 wrote about "chronic know-nothings," a hardcore group of people completely disconnected and largely unreachable by traditional information campaigns. "Even if all the physical barriers to communication were removed," they wrote, "there would remain many psychological barriers to the free flow of ideas."

These are people with no motivation and often little ability to participate in the public discourse. Basically these are people who don't give a damn about public affairs and see no reason why they should. There is a certain Downsian rational beauty to this: why should I bother keeping up on something I have no real voice in? What benefit do I receive by spending time or money in keeping up with public affairs?

Other than civic responsibility, something that sure as hell won't work on them, there's no good answer.

Who are the chronic know-nothings? No real surprises here. The Pew data suggests they are younger and less educated, women more than men, non-white and lower income, and more likely to live in the South than elsewhere. Other studies confirm this. What people know is often tied to various demographic factors, though if you control for one or two of them the other factors often disappear in importance.

Analyses I would love to do some time is whether this hardcore group of chronic know-nothings is growing (probably yes) and whether the demographics are shifting (I suspect so) and are there also changes in voting habits (maybe yes) and where the media fit in all this (little, if any) and whether this group is more open to persuasion (absolutely).