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Explaining Information Effects in Collective Preferences
Unformatted Document Text:  change in wording produced dramatic effects on collective opinion: 58% wanted to decrease spending on welfare programs, but only 13% wanted to decrease spending on poor people. This crucial difference in terms also produces a larger information effect in one of the questions. Differences of opinion are of a similar magnitude in surveyed opinion for both questions: 65% of respondents from the highest knowledge quartile versus just 44% of those from the lowest wanted to decrease spending on welfare, while 22% from the highest quartile and only 4% from the lowest wanted to decrease spending on poor people. However, the modal preference for both quartiles is the same in the welfare question—pluralities in both groups preferred to decrease welfare spending—but different in the poor people question, where 47% of the highest quartile preferred to keep spending about the same, but 63% of the lowest preferred to increase spending. Dispersion effects therefore gave additional influence to well-informed opinion in the welfare question but to ill- informed opinion in the poor people question. As a consequence, correcting for information effects makes more of a difference in one than the other. While the percentage wanting to decrease spending goes up in simulated opinion for both questions, the increase is smaller for welfare (6 points) than for poor people (12 points). After correcting for information effects, the percentage wanting to increasing spending in simulated opinion remains the same for the welfare question, but goes down by 13 points in the poor people question. 10 The poor people question has a larger gap between surveyed and simulated preferences because a dispersion effect in surveyed opinion advantaged the views of ill-informed respondents. But what explains why the views the ill-informed were more lopsided in one question than the other? Responses to social spending questions are marked by a high degree of ambivalence—most Americans can list as many reasons for supporting as for opposing welfare (Zaller and Feldman 1992) —and it may be that less knowledgeable respondents gravitated toward similar (and simpler) 10 That the welfare version of this question produces smaller information effects does not mean that it produces opinions which are generally “better” or more worthy of consideration than the poor people question. From a question design standpoint it has several undesirable properties: it activates primarily negative evaluations of social spending (Smith 1987), and it is vague—as Cook and Barrett (1992: 221) point out, “no program called ‘welfare’ actually exists.” From the perspective of political representation, the only sense in which the welfare version is “better” is that the uneven social distribution of political knowledge makes less of a difference for people who answer it.

Authors: Althaus, Scott.
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change in wording produced dramatic effects on collective opinion: 58% wanted to decrease
spending on welfare programs, but only 13% wanted to decrease spending on poor people.
This crucial difference in terms also produces a larger information effect in one of the
questions. Differences of opinion are of a similar magnitude in surveyed opinion for both questions:
65% of respondents from the highest knowledge quartile versus just 44% of those from the lowest
wanted to decrease spending on welfare, while 22% from the highest quartile and only 4% from the
lowest wanted to decrease spending on poor people. However, the modal preference for both
quartiles is the same in the welfare question—pluralities in both groups preferred to decrease welfare
spending—but different in the poor people question, where 47% of the highest quartile preferred to
keep spending about the same, but 63% of the lowest preferred to increase spending. Dispersion
effects therefore gave additional influence to well-informed opinion in the welfare question but to ill-
informed opinion in the poor people question. As a consequence, correcting for information effects
makes more of a difference in one than the other. While the percentage wanting to decrease spending
goes up in simulated opinion for both questions, the increase is smaller for welfare (6 points) than for
poor people (12 points). After correcting for information effects, the percentage wanting to
increasing spending in simulated opinion remains the same for the welfare question, but goes down
by 13 points in the poor people question.
10
The poor people question has a larger gap between surveyed and simulated preferences because
a dispersion effect in surveyed opinion advantaged the views of ill-informed respondents. But what
explains why the views the ill-informed were more lopsided in one question than the other?
Responses to social spending questions are marked by a high degree of ambivalence—most
Americans can list as many reasons for supporting as for opposing welfare
(Zaller and Feldman
1992)
—and it may be that less knowledgeable respondents gravitated toward similar (and simpler)
10 That the welfare version of this question produces smaller information effects does not mean that it
produces opinions which are generally “better” or more worthy of consideration than the poor people question. From
a question design standpoint it has several undesirable properties: it activates primarily negative evaluations of social
spending (Smith 1987), and it is vague—as Cook and Barrett (1992: 221) point out, “no program called ‘welfare’
actually exists.” From the perspective of political representation, the only sense in which the welfare version is
“better” is that the uneven social distribution of political knowledge makes less of a difference for people who
answer it.


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