Thursday, September 10, 2009

Helping People Decide

The latest Public Opinion Quarterly includes a study with direct bearing on what people know -- in this case, the idea that informing them before surveying them will influence how they answer questions.

The study is Helping Citizens Decide in Referendums (with, of course, a colon and long sentence to create titular colinicity).  The dependent variables were likelihood of voting, preference, strength of opinion, and vote consistency.  What's that last one mean?  It harkens back to some traditional  research that examines how people organize their political positions and whether there's a logical (consistent) arrangement of attitudes.  In other words, you tend to be liberal on a host of issues, or conservative.  Therefore, consistent.

Independent variables?  Various flavors of political sophistication or knowledge through something called ICQ -- which stands for Information and Choice Questionnaire.  Basically, providing people with info about a specific problem before asking them what they think.

A careful reader will note this sounds like deliberative democracy (see my post here on it).  Not quite.  No deliberation taking place, at least the way it's meant, but yeah -- kinda sorta the same idea, that informed opinion is different than public opinion.

Informing people in advance before polling them did lead to more consistent opinions, but more so for people with less education and interest.  This follows theory, to a point.  As the authors note, cognitive processing models such as ELM suggest that people high in political sophistication will be more able and motivated to carefully consider an issue, but here it's the people with lower political sophistication who "profit more." 

I suspect some of this has to do with the artificial nature of a lab experiment, but even so it raises some interesting theoretical and methodological questions.  We've always known informed opinion differs from generic public opinion.  This study takes another step closer to understanding not only how it differs, but the consequences of those differences.

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