Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Objective and Perceived Knowledge

I've written many times about perceived knowledge, the perception that we are informed, and how it is different from -- but related to -- actual or objective knowledge. Indeed the two are often highly correlated, but not perfectly so. My interest has always been in the role the media play in creating the sense of being informed versus actually gaining knowledge.

But let's talk condoms.

There is this study, published in Pediatrics, that examines perceived and objective knowledge about adolescent male condom use. Other than being a neat topic, I found the methodology kinda interesting.

No it's not what you think, so keep reading.

They used a 5-item scale to measure knowledge and a 5-item scale to measure confidence about that knowledge. Is confidence the same as perceived knowledge? That's an interesting question; it's fascinating to tap not only a set of knowledge items but confidence about those very same items. So if you missed a few of the five but were very confident, you are high in perceived knowledge without being high in actual knowledge. Typically we ask a very different kind of question to measure "perceived knowledge," a set that often look very much like internal efficacy. I think the approach here may be much better, given that it's domain specific rather than general, like efficacy.

Why does all of this matter? Simple. I argue that some news programming, especially entertainment-based news programming, can lead to the sense of feeling informed (my empty calorie theory) when you're actually not all that informed, or at least not as much as you believe. Feeling informed, those empty calories, mean you don't eat your spinach (serious news, that sort of thing).

In the abstract of the condom study, the authors report:
However, those with higher perceived knowledge, particularly in the context of low objective knowledge, may be at greater risk for not using condoms. Addressing not only objective but also perceived knowledge may increase the effectiveness of interventions that are designed to increase rates of condom use among male adolescents.
In other words, high perceived knowledge but less actual knowledge is a bad combination. I'd make the same argument across a number of domains, from health to consumption of serious news as part of being a citizen in a democratic society.

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