Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why People Know What They Know About Politics

In my two previous posts, I looked at what people know about politics, and I looked a bit at who knows what about politics. The general theme is that people don't know very much overall, but there's variation—people know more about some things than others, and some people know more than others.

Today, I want to look at why people know what they know, and fortunately we've already seen some hints at the explanation. For example, we've seen that more people know about high-profile issues than about others. Putting that together with everything else we've seen so far suggests a fairly simple explanation for why people don't know that much about politics: it's actually kind of hard to follow, and most people have better things—or at least more pleasant things—to do than think about the awful state of the economy or whether gay people should be allowed to marry each other.

This is an argument that Anthony Downs first put forth in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy. According to Downs, the costs and benefits of learning about politics are such that people will know what someone hands them—and Downs meant this literally. So, people will know something they read in a pamphlet a political activist handed them, they'll know something they saw in a political ad, and so forth. They know these things and little else because they just don't want to take the effort to learn much else.

Researchers don't always state their arguments in such terms, but costs and benefits are often there. I mentioned Verba, Schlozman, and Brady's book Voice and Equality in a previous post. Their argument is about resources—in order to know something about politics and participate effectively in it, people need resources. Why do they need resources? They need resources because learning about and understanding politics is a costly endeavor in terms of the time and effort required.

Now, how does Downs's argument explain the facts we've observed? There are three main ideas. First, learning about politics takes effort—in economic terms, it's costly—but some things take more effort than others. Second, people have different resources at their disposal to spend, so to speak, on learning about politics. Third, people differ in how much they care about politics. That is, some people get more of an intrinsic benefit from learning about politics than others. Let's see how this plays out in three examples.

One observaton we made was that more people know about high-profile issues like the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military than about low-profile issues. The reason might by now be obvious. Almost by definition, a high-profile issue is easier to find out about than a low-profile one—the issue is everywhere on TV and in the papers, so you don't have to do any digging to find out about it. In the Downsian way of thinking, it costs less to learn about a high-profile issue compared to low-profile ones.

Another factor is education. In at least two ways, being more educated is related to having more resources to spend on learning about politics. The standard argument goes that education gives you the skills to learn about and understand politics. Education also tends to go along with being more a rich white male or, to use the technical term, being of huger socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status tend to have more free time—they're the ones reading and writing science blogs, not the ones working two jobs to get by. Regardless, more educated people tend to have more resources to spend on learning about politics, either because they more to begin with (the usual argument) or more left over at the end of the day (the SES argument).

(There's actually a third way to think about education: by giving people skills to acquire and process political information, it reduces the costs of learning about politics. If we think about people having to dig less to find out about high profile issues, then in this sense education makes the digging easier. In contrast, the first argument about education says that you have more time to dig.)

Last but not least, how can we understand the effect of paying attention to and discussing politics? This comes down to the benefits people get out of knowing things about politics. Chances are, if you read newspapers and talk with your friends and colleagues about what you read, you actually care about politics. Heaven forbid, but you might even like politics. Either way, you find learning about and understanding politics intrinsically valuable. Using the digging analogy, you might think there's buried treasure, or you might just enjoy the digging.

So, the generally low levels of political knowledge people have as well as who knows what about politics likely comes down to costs and benefits. If the information is easy to come by, people are more likely to know it. If people have an easier time learning and understanding that information, they're more likely to know it. And if people actually enjoy or at least value knowing stuff about politics, they're more likely to know it. In other words, if the knowledge is less costly to learn, people have more resources to learn it, or they value learning it, then they are more likely to learn it.

If this is a dismal picture, it should at least not be surprising. After all, most people really don't have the time and inclination to deal with politics, and even if they did, they might reasonably think that no one will listen to them anyway. (Actually, they might be right, but we'll get to that later.) The question remains whether it matters. For a long time, people simply assumed that it did, but over the last few decades, a number of people have challenged that view. More on that in future posts.

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