Political Ignorance and Partisan Bias Go Down When Survey Respondents Are Rewarded for Correct Answers

Many studies show that there is widespread political ignorance, with large percentages of the public ignorant of fairly basic facts. In addition, voters’ perception of the facts is often heavily influenced by partisan bias. For example, Republicans overestimate the rates of inflation and unemployment when there is a Democratic president, while Democrats have the opposite bias.

An impressive recent study by political scientists John Bullock, Alan Gerber, Seth Hill, and Gregory Huber finds that both ignorance and partisan bias are greatly reduced if survey respondents are given financial rewards for correct answers [HT: Alex Tabarrok]:

In the first experiment, some participants were paid for correct responses to factual questions. The payments reduced observed partisan gaps by about 55%. In the second experiment, we also paid some participants for “don’t know” responses. In this experiment, incentives for correct responses reduced partisan gaps by 60%, and incentives for “don’t know” did so by an additional 20%, yielding partisan gaps that were 80% smaller than those that we observed in the absence of incentives. Taken together, these results provide a lowerbound estimate on the proportion of partisan divergence that arises because of the combination of expressive partisan returns and self-aware ignorance of the truth. Extending our analysis, we found thatpaying people for correct responses sharply reduces the power of factual assessments to predict vote choice.

The authors and Alex Tabarrok suggest that this shows that most partisans don’t really believe the factually inaccurate answers they give in surveys without incentives. The former therefore argue that partisan voters are less biased and less ignorant than conventional surveys suggest. This strikes me as implausible. I doubt that most partisans secretly recognize that the facts are much more opposed to their position than they claim, but continue to strongly believe in it anyway, and refuse to admit the truth even in anonymous surveys. Economist Bryan Caplan offers a more plausible explanation for these results:

The authors’ results are admittedly consistent with insincerity. Yet they’re equally consistent with my rational irrationality story: partisans sincerely believe their answers, but exert more intellectual self-discipline when the price of error rises. And introspectively, my interpretation is more plausible. Are we really supposed to believe that in their heart of hearts, seemingly self-righteous partisans are being willfully deceptive? Isn’t it far more likely that they’re simply being intellectually lazy?…

Question for Bullock et al.: Are real-world democratic elections more like your treatment condition with incentives, or without? Given voters’ low probability of decisiveness, the answer is clear: Real-world democratic elections closely resemble the treatment without incentives. After all, if a voter votes under the influence of partisan bias, what happens to him? The same thing that would have happened if he voted responsibly.

Overall, I think these results reinforce my argument that people do a better of acquiring relevant information and analyzing it rationally when they “vote with their feet” than at the ballot box. When foot voters decide what jurisdiction to live in or what product to buy in the market place, they are highly likely to be rewarded for good decisions and punished for bad ones. By contrast, ballot box voters face much weaker incentives, because the chance that their vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election is vanishingly small. If ignorance or bias causes you to buy a lemon instead of a reliable car, you suffer the effects of your poor decision-making. Not so if you vote for the wrong candidate on election day, when the chance of your vote effecting the outcome is miniscule. For that reason, most of us are far more careful when we choose a car than when we choose a president. Ballot box voters are like survey respondents without financial incentives, while foot voters generally have much stronger incentives than the modest payments offered by Bullock, et al. in their study.

This and similar previous studies do suggest a novel strategy for alleviating political ignorance: the government could simply pay voters to increase their knowledge, for example by offering financial rewards to voters who do well on political information surveys. I discuss the idea in more detail in Chapter 7 of Democracy and Political Political Ignorance. It is subject to fewer objections than the more traditional strategies of restricting the franchise to the knowledgeable or giving them extra votes (as proposed by John Stuart Mill). Under the financial incentives approach, no one is deprived of the right to vote for being ignorant. But voters do have much stronger incentives to become knowledgeable than in the status quo.

Ultimately, however, I do not actually endorse this proposal. The biggest fly in the ointment is that some government agency would have to decide what questions will be in the test and which answers are “correct.” This would create so many opportunities for partisan and other kinds of bias that the risk probably isn’t worth taking. But I do think the idea deserves greater consideration. Other scholars might suggest strategies for reducing the risk of official bias that have not occurred to me.

UPDATE: I have slight revised this post in order to improve clarity.