Americans are overconfident in their political knowledge

As the statewide primaries continue through the summer, many Americans are starting to think about which candidates they will support in the 2022 general election.

This decision-making process is fraught with pitfalls, especially for inexperienced voters.

Voters must navigate angry and emotionally charged conversations about politics as they try to figure out who to vote for. Americans are more likely than ever to view politics in moral terms, meaning their political conversations sometimes feel like epic battles between good and evil.


But political conversations are also shaped by, obviously, what Americans know — and, less obviously, what they think they know — about politics.

In recent research, I have 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 really know.

Voters must navigate angry and emotionally charged conversations about politics as they try to figure out who to vote for.

(Shutterstock)

Deficit of knowledge, excess of confidence

For the past five years, I have studied the phenomenon of what I call “political overconfidence”. My work, in tandem with the studies of other scholars, reveals how it thwarts democratic politics. Political overconfidence can make people more defensive about mistaken factual beliefs about politics. It also causes Americans to underestimate the political skills of their peers. And those who think they are political experts often reject the advice of real experts.

Political overconfidence also interacts with political partisanship, making supporters less willing to listen to their peers across the way.

The result is a breakdown in the ability to learn from each other about political issues and events.

A “reality check” experience

In my last study on the subject, I tried to find out what would happen when politically overconfident people discovered that they were wrong about political facts.

To do this, I recruited a sample of Americans to participate in a survey experiment through the recruitment platform Lucid. In the experiment, some respondents were shown a series of statements that taught them to avoid common political lies. For example, one statement explained that while many people believe Social Security will soon run out of money, the reality is less dire than it appears.

My hypothesis was that most people would learn statements and become more cautious about repeating common political lies. However, as I found in my previous studies, a problem quickly arose.

The problem

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 is the current Energy Secretary – Jennifer Granholm. Then I asked them how they thought they passed the quiz.

Many of the respondents who thought they were the top performers were actually among the worst performers. Much like the results of a famous study by Dunning and Kruger, low achievers usually don’t realize they are falling behind their peers.

Of the 1,209 people who took part, around 70% were overconfident about their knowledge of politics. But that basic pattern wasn’t the most worrisome part of the results.

Overconfident respondents failed to change their attitudes in response to my warnings about political lies. My investigation showed that they read the statements and could report details of what they said. But their attitudes towards the lies remained inflexible, probably because they saw themselves – wrongly – as political experts.

But if I could make overconfident respondents more humble, would they really take my warnings about political lies to heart?

Bad self-assessment

My experiment aimed to examine what happens when overconfident people are told that their political knowledge is lacking. To do this, I randomly assigned respondents to receive one of three experimental treatments after taking the political knowledge quiz. These were as follows:

  1. Respondents received statements teaching them to avoid political lies.
  2. Respondents did not receive the statements.
  3. Respondents received 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. In addition to their raw score, the report showed how respondents ranked among 1,000 of their peers.

For example, respondents who thought they had passed the quiz might have learned that they answered one out of five questions correctly and scored less 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 followed up with them.

Finally, I asked all survey respondents to rate their level of skepticism about five statements. These statements are all common political lies. One statement, for example, claimed that violent crime had increased over the previous decade – it had not. Another claimed that the United States spent 18% of the federal budget on foreign aid – the actual figure was less than 1%.

I expected most respondents who had received my warnings to become more skeptical of such misinformed statements. On average, they did. But have overconfident respondents also learned this lesson?

Those who think they are political experts often reject the advice of real experts.

Hand writing Facts Vs Myths with marker over transparent wipe
Those who think they are political experts often reject the advice of real experts.

(Shutterstock)

Back to reality: mission accomplished

The results of the study showed that overconfident respondents only began to take political lies seriously if they had first experienced my “reality check” treatment.

While the overconfident respondents in other conditions showed no reaction, the humble 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 of political lies by a statistically significant margin.

Overall, this “reality check” experience was a success. But it reveals that aside from experience, political overconfidence hampers the ability of many Americans 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 is growing in prominence in the age of online political discourse. In the online domain, it is often difficult to assess the credibility of anonymous users. This means that false claims are easily propagated by uninformed people who simply appear confident.

To combat this problem, social media companies and thought 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 could consider promoting humility by reminding posters to reconsider the “stance” or assertion of their posts.

Although it may seem 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 that asks would-be news posters to “read before you tweet” has 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 for social media companies to encourage good behavior online. With another election season soon upon us, such a fix is ​​urgently needed.

Ian Anson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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