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Explaining Information Effects in Collective Preferences
Unformatted Document Text:  This work also suggests that the social distribution of policy-specific knowledge can be only part of the story. The Gilens study shows that fully 75% of Americans knew in 1988 that the deficit had been rising, yet information effects in collective opinions about paying down the deficit averaged a stratospheric 18 percentage points. My analysis of similar data from eight years later shows that far fewer knew that the deficit had been falling—just 29% of Americans got this question right in 1996—yet information effects in collective opinions about fiscal issues averaged around 9 percentage points, roughly half the size of information effects about fiscal issues in 1988. The Gilens study also concludes that the effects of policy-specific information depend on the possession of general political knowledge. Table 4 of that study suggests that policy-specific knowledge alone compensated for low levels of general knowledge in only one or two of seven questions studied. However, it is possible that these conclusions might hold only for collective information effects, since individual-level effects were not analyzed in the Gilens study. A check on these findings is provided by individual-level data from the 1996 American National Election Studies, which contains a relatively larger number of policy-specific information items that can be related directly to a larger number of opinion questions than had been available in the 1988 data examined by Gilens. Rather than replicating the sophisticated, multi-stage simulation method employed by Gilens, a similar perspective is provided by comparing information effects among people who lack policy- specific knowledge to those for people who possess it, while controlling for levels of general political knowledge. 14 Four policy domains can be studied in this way: abortion rights, spending on military defense, competing priorities in governmental budgeting, and the amount of government effort that should be devoted to various aspects of environmental protection. Among the available 14 For the analysis presented in this section, correct answers to each policy-specific knowledge question were removed from the standard scale of political knowledge used elsewhere in this book for 1996 data. Thus, correct answers to the candidates’ stands on abortion were subtracted from general political knowledge when assessing the unique impact of both kinds of knowledge on abortion attitudes, leaving all other knowledge items (including those about defense spending, the deficit, and environmental positions taken by the parties) in the general political knowledge scale. For assessing the impact of policy-specific knowledge on defense spending preferences, correct placements of the two parties on defense spending were subtracted from the general knowledge scale for the defense spending comparison, leaving all other knowledge items (including those about the candidates’ abortion stances, the deficit, and environmental positions taken by the parties) in the measure of general political knowledge. Such comparisons allow a simple test of the relative impact of policy-specific knowledge versus general political knowledge.

Authors: Althaus, Scott.
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This work also suggests that the social distribution of policy-specific knowledge can be only
part of the story. The Gilens study shows that fully 75% of Americans knew in 1988 that the deficit
had been rising, yet information effects in collective opinions about paying down the deficit
averaged a stratospheric 18 percentage points. My analysis of similar data from eight years later
shows that far fewer knew that the deficit had been falling—just 29% of Americans got this question
right in 1996—yet information effects in collective opinions about fiscal issues averaged around 9
percentage points, roughly half the size of information effects about fiscal issues in 1988. The Gilens
study also concludes that the effects of policy-specific information depend on the possession of
general political knowledge. Table 4 of that study suggests that policy-specific knowledge alone
compensated for low levels of general knowledge in only one or two of seven questions studied.
However, it is possible that these conclusions might hold only for collective information effects,
since individual-level effects were not analyzed in the Gilens study. A check on these findings is
provided by individual-level data from the 1996 American National Election Studies, which contains
a relatively larger number of policy-specific information items that can be related directly to a larger
number of opinion questions than had been available in the 1988 data examined by Gilens.
Rather than replicating the sophisticated, multi-stage simulation method employed by Gilens, a
similar perspective is provided by comparing information effects among people who lack policy-
specific knowledge to those for people who possess it, while controlling for levels of general
political knowledge.
14
Four policy domains can be studied in this way: abortion rights, spending on
military defense, competing priorities in governmental budgeting, and the amount of government
effort that should be devoted to various aspects of environmental protection. Among the available
14 For the analysis presented in this section, correct answers to each policy-specific knowledge question were
removed from the standard scale of political knowledge used elsewhere in this book for 1996 data. Thus, correct
answers to the candidates’ stands on abortion were subtracted from general political knowledge when assessing the
unique impact of both kinds of knowledge on abortion attitudes, leaving all other knowledge items (including those
about defense spending, the deficit, and environmental positions taken by the parties) in the general political
knowledge scale. For assessing the impact of policy-specific knowledge on defense spending preferences, correct
placements of the two parties on defense spending were subtracted from the general knowledge scale for the defense
spending comparison, leaving all other knowledge items (including those about the candidates’ abortion stances, the
deficit, and environmental positions taken by the parties) in the measure of general political knowledge. Such
comparisons allow a simple test of the relative impact of policy-specific knowledge versus general political
knowledge.


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