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 studyfrom 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."