Most Americans Know What is True

There is one topic I return to more often than most, a topic that has been on my mind for about a decade now. This topic has to do with the confluence of ideology, labels, and social science. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to remember.

I’m about equally interested in conservatism and liberalism (along with other ideological labels). But liberalism in some ways has intrigued me more because of all the massive confusion surrounding the label. Most Americans hold fairly strong left-leaning views on many of the most important major issues.

There are a number of facts that have become permanently caught in my craw. I considered two of these in a post from not too long ago, Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism. In that post, I pointed out that most Americans are more in agreement with one another than they are with the more right-leaning political elites who claim to speak for and represent them. But there is a complicating factor involving the odd mixture of liberalism and conservatism in the American Mind (I never get tired of quoting this fascinating explanation):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

What the heck is a symbolic conservatism? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if anyone has that one figured out yet.

I also pointed out that even most Southerners are on the left side of the spectrum. It’s just that most Southerners are disenfranchized. If most Southerners voted, Republicans would never be able to win another election in the South without completely altering what they campaign on.

The claim of a polarized population is overstated. This brings me to a new angle. I came across another piece of data that now can be permanently caught in my craw with the rest. It is from a book by Cass R. Sunstein, not an author I normally read, but the book looked intriguing. He wrote (How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics, Kindle Locations 249-253):

Recent studies by Yale University’s John Bullock and his co-authors suggest that with respect to facts, Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot less than we might think.

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe.

This was from a fairly short essay that ends with this conclusion (Kindle Locations 271-282):

What’s going on here? Bullock and his colleagues think that when people answer factual questions about politics, they engage in a degree of cheerleading, even at the expense of the truth. In a survey setting, there is no cost to doing that.

With economic incentives, of course, the calculus is altered. If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive . And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you will put a higher premium on accuracy.

What is especially striking is that Bullock and his colleagues were able to slash polarization with very modest monetary rewards. If the incentives were greater (say, $ 100 for a correct answer and $ 25 for “I don’t know”), there is every reason to expect that partisan differences would diminish still more.

It might seem disturbing to find such a divergence between what people say and what they actually believe, but in a way, these findings are immensely encouraging. They suggest that with respect to facts, partisan differences are much less sharp than they seem—and that political polarization is often an artifact of the survey setting.

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

Incentives can make people honest. And when honest, people agree a lot more. This reminds me of research showing that, by doing word jumble puzzles and such, people can be primed for rational thought and indeed they do think more rationally under those conditions. Between incentives and priming, we could have a much higher quality public debate and political action.

This also reminds me of implicit knowledge (see here and here). Many writers have observed the strange phenomenon of people simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Maybe this directly relates to incentives and similar factors. It might not just be an issue of incentives to be honest, but also incentives to be self-aware, to admit to themselves what they already know, even when such truths might be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

A further confounding factor, as research also shows, the political elites and the political activists are very much polarized. Those with the most power and influence are the stumbling blocks for democracy or any other moral and effective political process. This plays straight into the cheerleading of the masses. Too many people will simply go along with what the pundits and politicians tell them, unless some other motivation causes them to think more carefully and become more self-aware.

One wonders what the public debate would be like about issues from global warming to economic inequality, if the incentives were different. A single honest public debate could transform our society. It would be a shock to the entire social, political, and economic system.

7 thoughts on “Most Americans Know What is True


    “The good news is that wing nuts usually don’t matter. The bad news is that they influence people who do. Sadly, more information often fails to correct people’s misunderstandings. In fact, it can backfire and entrench them. Can anything be done?

    “For a positive answer, consider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. Their central finding is that if you ask people to explain exactly why they think as they do, they discover how much they don’t know — and they become more humble and therefore more moderate.”

    • That study reminds me of another. There is a study that, as I recall, shows that people become more moderate in their views when they are given the task to argue the opposite viewpoint. I suppose it forces people to think more carefully about the topic and it simultaneously creates empathy and understanding for those of the opposing view.

    • It seems to me that the problem is that the dissociation (of knowing and not knowing) is directly linked to apathy. The personal will of individual citizens can’t be united as a force for public good (as political will) if self-awareness and public awareness is divided by dissociation. Division of will and division of knowledge/awareness are two sides of the same problem.

      That is a real humdinger.

      I often return to the notion of propaganda. Only the media of North Korea competes with the self-enclosed reality tunnel of American media. There is no population on the planet that has as much money spent on propagandizing them.

      Big biz media in the US is massive. Chomsky discusses this in what he calls the propaganda model. It isn’t traditional propaganda, but in many ways it is much more effective and pervasive.

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