As statewide primaries continue into the summer, many Americans are beginning to think about which candidates they will support in the 2022 general election.
This decision-making process is fraught with difficulty, especially for inexperienced voters.
Voters must navigate angry and emotionally charged conversations about politics when trying to decide who to vote for. Americans are more likely than ever to see politics in moral terms, meaning their political conversations sometimes seem like epic battles between good and evil.
But political conversations are also obviously shaped by what Americans know—and, less obviously, by what they think they know—about politics.
In recent research, I studied how Americans’ perceptions of their own political knowledge shape their political attitudes. My results show that many Americans think they know a lot more about politics than they actually do.
Lack of knowledge, surplus of confidence
For the past five years, I have studied the phenomenon of what I call “political overconfidence.” My work, along with the studies of other researchers, reveals how it frustrates democratic politics.
Political overconfidence can make people more defensive about wrong beliefs about politics. It also causes Americans to underestimate the political skill of their peers. And those who think they are political experts often reject the guidance of real experts.
Political overconfidence also interacts with political partisanship, making partisans less willing to listen to colleagues across the aisle.
The result is a breakdown in the ability to learn from each other about political issues and events.
A “reality check” experiment.
In my most recent study on the topic, I tried to figure out what would happen when politically overconfident people found out they were wrong about political facts.
To do this, I recruited a sample of Americans to participate in a survey experiment through the recruiting platform Lucid. In the experiment, some respondents were shown a series of statements that taught them to avoid common political falsehoods. For example, one statement explained that while many people believe that Social Security will soon run out of money, the reality is less dire than it seems.
My hypothesis was that most people would learn from the statements and become more wary of repeating common political falsehoods. However, as I found in my previous studies, a problem quickly arose.
First, I asked respondents a series of basic questions about American politics. This quiz included topics such as which party controls the House of Representatives, the Democrats, and who the current Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, is. I then asked them how they thought they did on the quiz.
Many of the respondents who thought they were top performers were actually among the worst performers. Very similar to the results of a famous study by Dunning and Kruger, the poorest performers generally did not realize that they were lagging behind their peers.
Of the 1,209 people who took part, around 70% were overconfident in their knowledge of politics. But this basic pattern was not the most concerning part of the results.
Overconfident respondents did not change their attitudes in response to my warnings about political falsehoods. My research showed that they did read the statements and could report details about what they said. But their attitudes toward untruths remained inflexible, probably because they mistakenly considered themselves political experts.
But if I could humble overconfident respondents, would my warnings about political falsehoods really be heeded?
My experiment was intended to examine what happens when overconfident people are told they lack political knowledge. To do this, I randomly assigned respondents to receive one of three experimental treatments after taking the political knowledge test. These were the following:
- Respondents were given statements that taught them to avoid political falsehoods.
- Respondents did not receive the statements.
- Respondents were given both the statements and a “reality check” treatment. The reality check showed how respondents fared in the political quiz they took at the start of the survey. Along with their raw score, the report showed how respondents ranked out of 1,000 of their peers.
For example, respondents who thought they had passed the quiz might have learned that they got one in five questions right and scored worse than 82% of their peers. For many overconfident respondents, this “reality check” treatment brought them down to earth. They reported much less overconfidence on average when I tracked them.
Finally, I asked all study respondents to indicate their levels of skepticism toward five statements. These statements are all common political falsehoods. One statement, for example, claimed that violent crime had increased over the previous decade; I hadn’t done it. Another claimed that the US spent 18% of the federal budget on foreign aid, the actual figure was less than 1%.
I expected that most respondents who had received my cautionary statements would become more skeptical of these misinformed statements. On average, they did. But did overconfident respondents also learn this lesson?
Reality check: Mission accomplished
The results of the study showed that overconfident respondents began to take political falsehoods seriously only if they had first experienced my “reality check” treatment.
Although overconfident respondents in other conditions showed no reaction, the humbling nature of the “reality check” when they realized how wrong they had been led the overconfident participants in this condition to revise their beliefs. They increased their skepticism about political falsehoods by a statistically significant margin.
Overall, this “reality check” experiment was a success. But it reveals that outside of the experiment, political overconfidence stands in the way of many Americans’ ability to accurately perceive political reality.
The problem of political overconfidence
What, if anything, can be done about the widespread phenomenon of political overconfidence?
Although my research cannot determine whether political overconfidence is increasing over time, it makes intuitive sense that this issue would grow in importance in an era of online political discourse. In the online realm, it is often difficult to assess the credibility of anonymous users. This means that false claims are easily spread by uninformed people who just want to sound safe.
To combat this problem, social media companies and opinion leaders could look for ways to promote a discourse that emphasizes humility and self-correction. Because confident and misguided self-expression can easily drown out more credible voices in the online realm, social media apps might consider promoting humility by reminding posters to reconsider the “stance” or assertiveness of their posts .
While this may sound far-fetched, recent developments show that small nudges can lead to powerful changes in the online behavior of social media users.
For example, Twitter’s recent inclusion of a pop-up message asking would-be posters of news articles to “read before you tweet” caused users to rethink their willingness to share potentially misleading content.
A gentle reminder to avoid posting bold claims without evidence is just one possible way social media companies can encourage good online behavior. With another election season looming, a fix is urgently needed.
Ian Anson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The conversation arose out of deep concern about the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public sphere. Information has always been essential for democracy. It is a social good, like clean water. But now many find it hard to trust the media and experts who have been researching a topic for years. Instead, they listen to those with the loudest voice. These misinformed opinions are amplified by social media that rewards those who provoke outrage rather than insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation aims to be part of the solution to this problem, raise the voice of real experts and make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation airs nightly at 9pm on FlaglerLive.