Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Estimating Political Expertise and Fearing the "Passionate Fool"

When we think someone knows what they're talking about, we quite logically pay more attention to what they say. 

Guess someone's expertise correctly and we benefit from good advice.  Guess wrong, we're screwed.  This goes for health information, this goes for car repairs, and according to a new Political Behavior article, this goes for guessing the political expertise of people we speak to most often about politics.

Turns out, we're only so-so at guessing the expertise of others.  According to the author:
This study presents a mixed picture of the public’s ability to identify credible information sources among those with whom they discuss politics. The good news is individuals are able to recognize expertise, but people do make mistakes and systematically overestimate the knowledge of some types of individuals and underestimate it in others.
When someone is passionate about politics we tend to overestimate their actual expertise.  That's an understandable bias on our part.  If someone cares deeply, they must be knowledgeable, right?  Not necessarily. 

We can also be overwhelmed by someone's emotion.  The downside, writes study author John Barry Ryan, is "individuals do run the risk of believing those who are constantly talking, but without any real understanding of the topics about which they speak. It is the passionate fool who may disrupt effective political discussion."

So when it comes to who to trust about politics and public affairs, the message here seems to be to fear the passionate fool.

Full Study Cite:  Ryan, J. B.  (2011).  Accuracy and bias in perceptions of political knowledge.  Political Behavior, 33, 335-356.

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