Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fictitious Knowledge

Most studies on political knowledge look at what people know about some issue or candidate. And then there are the ones I really love that look at what people know about stuff that doesn't even exist.

A new Political Studies piece has the great title: Fictitious Issues Revisited: Political Interest, Knowledge and the Generation of Nonattitudes.

Lemme explain.

We know lots of people answer survey questions even when they know nothing about a topic. Hell, they'll answer questions about completely fictitious issues, hence the "revisited" in the title above. In U.S. studies this generally occurs among the less educated, but this British study finds people with greater political interest also have more "pseudo-opinions," but political knowledge moderates this effect. In other words, if you're interested in politics you might even give an opinion on something that doesn't exist, but if you also know a lot about politics you'll recognize it as invented and not provide a false or fictitious opinion.

There's also a cool question-order effect here. Asking the political interest question before the fictitious item increases the effect. Fascinating. You've primed them to think their interested, and therefore they're more likely to provide an answer to even a fake issue. Self esteem, priming, lots of explanations here that come into play.

People tend to "anchor" these fictitious issues to existing ones to generate an opinion. That says a lot about what goes on inside our heads, how we organize our political world, seeking desperately for shortcuts or heuristics or ways to make sense of these issues when we face them. Unfortunately there is no media angle to all of this, at least in the study. I'd hope attention to news media would moderate this effect, but I wonder whether certain kinds of media attention might actually make it worse -- certain blogs, certain bloviating talking potato head commentators, that sort of thing. It's an interesting question.

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