Public Ignorance About How Government Policy Works

NPR reports on an interesting recent article by psychologist Phil Fernbach and his coauthors, which finds that public ignorance about the details of policy has an important impact on voters’ political views:

Should the United States impose unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program? Should we raise the retirement age for Social Security? Should we institute a national flat tax? How about implementing merit-based pay for teachers? Or establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions?

Plenty of people have strong opinions about complex policy issues like these. But few people have the detailed knowledge of policy or economics that a solid understanding of the issues seems to require. Where do these opinions come from, if not from careful analysis and deep understanding?

A variety of uncharitable answers come to mind. Perhaps people just adopt the attitudes of their local community or favorite pundits. Perhaps people believe what they want to believe. Or perhaps people think they do understand the issues, at least well enough to support their own opinions.

A recent paper by psychologist Phil Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado and his collaborators, published this May in Psychological Science, provides some evidence for this final option: people overestimate how well they understand the mechanics of complex policies, and this sense of understanding helps bolster politically extreme positions…

Here’s how the study worked. People completed an online survey in which they first rated their agreement with several policies, such as sanctions on Iran and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. They were then asked to estimate how well they felt they understood each policy and received an unexpected request: for two of the policies, they were told to “describe all the details” they knew about the impact of instituting that policy, “going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps.”

In other words, people were asked to explain the nitty gritty mechanics of how the policy would play out, an exercise that led many to subsequently lower their estimates of how well they actually understood the policy.

Thus humbled, people’s agreement or disagreement with the policy also became more moderate.

At work here is a combination of voters’ rational ignorance about public policy, and their “rational irrationality” in analyzing the information they do know. Because the chance of influencing an electoral outcome is so low, most people spend little time and effort learning about government policy. Thus, they know very little about how most government policies work. For the same reason, they also make little effort to objectively evaluate the information they do learn. Often, they acquire that knowledge for reasons that are antithetical to truth-seeking, such as a desire reinforce their preexisting prejudices. I discuss both problems in detail in my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

The Fernbach experiment in effect forces respondents to confront their biases by making them think about whether they really understand the policies they express opinions about. NPR’s description of the results suggests that this leads to greater “moderation.” However, I think this conflates two different sense of moderation: becoming more of a political centrist, and reducing the intensity of with which you hold your preexisting views. The experiment shows that increasing awareness of political ignorance has the latter effect, but not necessarily the former. Other research shows that increasing knowledge tends to make people more socially liberal and fiscally conservative, neither of which necessarily leads to centrism.

In an October 2012 New York Times op ed, Fernbach and Steven Sloman suggested some solutions to the problem highlighted by their research:

The answer implied by our research is not that we should all become policy wonks. Instead, we voters need to be more mindful that issues are complicated and challenge ourselves to break down the policy proposals on both sides into their component parts. We have to then imagine how these ideas would work in the real world — and then make a choice: to either moderate our positions on policies we don’t really understand, as research suggests we will, or try to improve our understanding. Either way, discourse would then be based on information, not illusion.

This is good advice. But I am skeptical that very many voters will follow it. Thinking carefully about how policy proposals “would work in the real world” requires time and effort, including the effort needed to try to keep preexisting partisan biases in check. Most voters have little incentive to do this. Moreover, the enormous size and scope of modern government makes it unlikely that even the most conscientious voters will have the time to seriously consider more than a small fraction of the issues regulated by the state. Fernbach and Sloman also urge us to demand that politicians give more detailed explanations of how their proposed policies would work. Unfortunately, politicians must appeal to a largely ignorant election that responds better to simplistic rhetoric than wonkish lectures. Successful candidates usually exploit political ignorance rather than ameliorate it.

If we want to improve the quality of our decision-making by reducing the effects of bias and ignorance, we should consider making fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by “voting with our feet,” either in the private sector or between jurisdictions in a federal system. Foot voting is far from perfect. But foot voters do have much stronger incentives to both acquire relevant information and use it rationally than ballot box voters do. I discuss the informational advantages of foot voting in much greater detail in my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.