Friday, August 22, 2008

Informed vs Feeling Informed

I've always been fascinated by the tension between being informed and feeling informed. In other words, lots of people think they're politically informed when, by most objective standards, they're not.

In psychology you'll find concepts like tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon or feeling of knowing. These are kinda cool but they don't really apply to political knowledge, except maybe in rare cases. They are often situations where you know an answer but can't quite dig it out of your brain and provide it (yeah, getting older here, see this more often).

Self efficacy or, from the political science folks, internal efficacy, do a better job of capturing what I mean. Broadly speaking, these have to do with a sense of competence. Do I feel adequate in keeping up with the complexities of public affairs and politics.

Most people say, yeah. But a lot don't.

Since 1948 there's been a slow, slight decline in how people answer whether politics is too complicated for them. About of third of U.S. voters now agree it's too complicated.

But I've never been happy with internal efficacy as a measure of perceived knowledge. Related concepts, but distinct. Or at least I think so. I've used internal efficacy in my own research as a surrogate of perceived knowledge, which to me is more particular, more specific, getting at an estimate of how much information one has about a candidate or campaign or the political world at large. Internal efficacy is broader, more about one's overall capacity to make sense of the world. I might have low perceived knowledge on something, but I could be damn confident in my efficacy at finding stuff out and becoming informed.

An Aside: yes, this is getting kinda PhDweebish and doesn't' have anything to do with McCain, Obama, or who they choose as vice presidents. Like everyone else I'm waiting to hear the news, though it almost never matters who the VP is in the long run.

OK, Hollander, but so what? If people feel informed, if they sense they are adequately informed, then they will be less likely to attend to the news, to the media, to new information. They're full. And certain media can create this sense of being full, kinda like empty calories from a soft drink, and not eat their veggies (i.e., news). That's the consequence: people will fill up on empty, funny, silly stuff and feel informed when, perhaps, they're not.


bethany said...

is that really the case though? Didn't that Pew survey say that the most informed people tended to be the ones who watched Daily Show or listened to Rush?
Or maybe by "silly" you mean Letterman or E! News.

Hollander said...

Well, if you look at pages 43-44 of the report, along with the table, it's a bit different. what makes Colbert/Stewart audienes unique in their knowledge is that the audience is relatively young, but younger people tend to do less well on political knowledge tests.

The top 4 on a "high knowledge" score were (1) Atlantic/New Yorker readers, (2) NPR listeners, (3)Hardball viewers, and (4) Hannity and Colmes viewers. Limbaugh listeners were #7, followed by Colbert viewers.

What's interesting is the table which gives the interplay of education and age. Hannity and Colmes does remarkably well given only 31% of its audience has a college degree. Viewers outscore readers of biz magazines, of which 60% have college degrees.

Another weird one: readers of news mags don't do very well despite having a high college grad reader rate.

Only 30% of Daily Show viewers scored in the "high knowledge" group, but it and Colbert watchers are the youngest recorded in the survey.

The only way to really do this is have the raw data.

John Arkwright said...

This reminds me of some research in psychology on competence. Specifically, incompetent people are more likely to be incompetent at evaluating the reality of their incompetence.

Researchers had participants do various tasks, one of which was to take a grammar quiz. Then participants estimated how well they did. Then they graded the quizzes of others.

Folks who did well on the quiz were more likely to underestimate their performance, but came closer in magnitude to estimating their true performance than folks who had done poorly. Folks who did badly on the quiz were more likely to overestimate their performance.

After grading someone else's paper, those who had done well on the grammar quiz came closer to estimating their true performance. After grading someone else's paper, those who did badly on the quiz came no closer to estimating their true performance.

I see this in students. Good students are often aware of how much they do not know. Bad students are often not aware of how much they do not know.

Usually bad students do not come in for help. But when they do, a bad student might say, "I did pretty good on the multiple-choice practice test." And after we look over the practice test, I'll say something like the following.

"It looks like you scored a 50%. Now that is a big improvement on the 25% that you would have scored by choosing randomly among these multiple choice answers. But that is an 'F' and I doubt that is what you're shooting for."

"Oh! Did I do that badly?"

Last semester a student sent me an email which said, "I have a 'C' in your course, but I am an 'A' student."

I did not think this student was even that good. I checked. He had two grades--D's. I checked further and that found both of his tests were still in the pile of tests which had not been claimed by students.

Hollander said...

incompetent people are more likely to be incompetent at evaluating the reality of their incompetence.

Heh heh, yeah, there's probably some self-esteem maintenance thing going on as well. The schools seem to spend a lot of time building self-esteem, more so than is probably wise. I always figure my job as a professor is to lower their self esteem.