Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


confused voter

(PHOTO: SFC/SHUTTERSTOCK)

American Voters: Plenty of Opinions, But Without a Clue

• November 05, 2012 • 10:14 AM

(PHOTO: SFC/SHUTTERSTOCK)

With a day to go until the presidential election, taking stock of just how (ill) informed American voters are.

Those who skipped this election cycle’s presidential debates to watch Monday Night Football or, ahem, Gossip Girl reruns missed quite the show. In addition to the usual cavalcade of dubious facts and figures—Mitt Romney wants to increase military spending by $2 trillion! Barack Obama promised us 5.4 percent unemployment!—there was talk of Sesame Street’s Big Bird, “binders full of women,” horses and bayonets, and Syria, Iran’s “route to the sea.” Throughout October, some 60 million Americans tuned in each week to watch the political boxing matches, hoping for a knockout display of wit and intellect, or at least something to Tweet about.

With cable, the networks, and the Web given over to wall-to-wall campaign coverage, and with less than 24 hours remaining before the election, we American voters have got all our facts straight by now—right?

Not quite. Let’s begin with a recent Pew Research Center poll, which asked 1,000 adults 11 simple questions about the upcoming election. (You can take the quiz yourself here.) The results were hardly reassuring. Eighty-five percent of Americans knew who Joe Biden was, but fewer than two in five could name the Supreme Court’s chief justice. (William Rehnquist, dead these last seven years, was a popular guess.) Just 60 percent knew Romney’s position on gay marriage—the same number who could identify where he’d served as governor.

When asked about the contenders’ stances on that perennial political hot potato, abortion, Americans might as well have been flipping a coin; slightly more than half correctly labeled Romney the “pro-life” candidate. And when it came to explaining what a “super-PAC” was, Americans performed even worse: 40 percent knew it was a group that accepted unlimited political donations; 15 percent guessed it was a hazardous waste clean-up project, an iPhone game, or a congressional deficit committee. The rest were totally in the dark.

Such displays of American unexceptionalism give political scientists the howling fantods. As Stanford’s Jonathan Bender and Yale’s John Bullock argued in a 2008 issue of Critical Review, “The political sophistication of American voters, measured by how much they know about politics and how well they think about what they know, has not changed much in the last 50 years.”

Perhaps it is time to “shift our gaze” from (predictably, incurably) ignorant voters and focus instead on improving the performance of top officials. As my father once explained baseball to me, you fire the manager only because you can’t fire the whole team.

“If most voters were Brookings-level policy wonks,” Bender and Bullock write, “the performance of the system would be quite different.” But the ever-rising tsunami of political coverage, on television, Twitter, and the Web, has done little to leave voters better informed. “Today, just as in the 1950s, most Americans are unaware of the existence of most issues, perforce oblivious of parties’ stands on those issues, ignorant of most of the basic rules by which government operates, and unfamiliar with all but the most important handful of events in the nation’s history.”

True understanding, it seems, has very little to do with how much information voters are given, and everything to do with how they process it.

A forthcoming study from Philip Fernbach, at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, about “voter extremism” and the “illusion of understanding,” illustrates this point nicely. Fernbach and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which subjects were asked about their attitudes toward a half-dozen controversial government initiatives: unilateral sanctions on Iran; raising the retirement age for Social Security; a single-payer health care system; a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions; a national flat tax, and merit-based pay for teachers. Then, subjects were asked to write a mechanistic explanation of two of the policies—in other words, how do they actually work?

Go ahead, try it: what, exactly, is a “single-payer health care system”? And what are our current sanctions on Iran?

Psychologists call this the “illusion of explanatory depth.” We think we know how something functions—whether it’s a padlock, a toilet, or Obamacare—until we’re forced to articulate it, step by step. Suddenly, we don’t feel so smart, nor so confident.

American voters are deeply polarized but at the same time greatly overestimate their own political intellect. “We predict that asking people to explain how a policy works will make them aware of how poorly they understand the policy,” Fernbach writes, “which will cause them to subsequently express more moderate attitudes and behaviors.”

And indeed, that’s just what the researchers found. After subjects tried (and usually failed) to explain a policy they judged as laudable or odious, they not only revised downward their level of true understanding, but also moderated their position on the issue. And those who reported the greatest decreases in understanding also showed the greatest degree of moderation.

But when Fernbach and his colleagues repeated the experiment, and instead asked subjects simply to list the reasons they supported a policy—i.e. not explain how it worked—the effect disappeared. As long as voters aren’t forced to come to terms with their own ignorance, it seems, they’re likely to remain entrenched in their polarized positions.

Fernbach points to a concept known as “processing fluency,” or the ease with which the mind processes information.

“When you have a sense of familiarity with something,” he told me, “it’s processed more easily, and you like it more.” This heuristic, tied to the “illusion of explanatory depth,” gives us an overconfidence in the extent to which we understand ideas. “A lot of our attitudes might actually be based on this weak scaffolding,” he says. “As soon as you start looking at it a little more carefully, it starts breaking down.”

Fernbach, who is a self-reported Sunday news show junkie, hopes that his team’s research will encourage a slight elevation in future elections.

“We’re not saying that people should not have strong attitudes and opinions,” he told me. “That’s not at all the point. The point is, it’s not productive to have a very strong opinion about something you don’t understand at all.”

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.