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Explaining Information Effects in Collective Preferences
Unformatted Document Text:  1991) when answering certain types of questions, or that their attitude structures are more consonant with those of the well informed in some topical domains than others. Variance in the size of information effects may also indicate that the specific questions included in general knowledge scales have less relevance for particular topics posed in survey questions or for particular contexts in which citizens are asked to make judgments. “Civics test” scales of political knowledge have been forcefully criticized in recent years on precisely these grounds (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Graber 1994, 2001; Lodge, McGraw, and Stroh 1989; Lodge, Steenbergen, and Brau 1995; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Popkin 1991) . While this criticism falls short as a blanket indictment—“civics test” knowledge clearly affects the responses people give in opinion surveys—it seems likely that levels of general political knowledge may be more relevant to some kinds of opinions than others. Lastly, since political knowledge is often used to predict chronic exposure to public affairs information in the news media (Price and Zaller 1993; Zaller 1992a, 1996) , variance in the size of information effects may be related to the intensity of news coverage given to different political topics. Information effects might be smaller on some issues because news coverage about those issues has reached even the most inattentive citizens, while larger information effects might reflect the more typical situation where knowledge about an issue remains concentrated in a small group of highly attentive citizens. Solving this mystery requires that we clarify the mechanisms by which information effects are produced in collective preferences. This paper examines some of the psychological and environmental factors that can influence the quality and distributional characteristics of survey responses. This analysis reveals that the impact of political knowledge on opinion is conditioned by a complex array of influences. While the challenges are many that face ill-informed citizens in matching preferences to interests, this analysis shows that those who are motivated to do so can overcome the typical effects of limited knowledge. Environmental factors turn out to play a key role in moderating the impact of political knowledge on surveyed opinion, which suggests that the keys to addressing the problem of information effects may lie in the ways that governmental institutions, leaders, and journalists prioritize, confront, and publicize political issues.

Authors: Althaus, Scott.
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1991)
when answering certain types of questions, or that their attitude structures are more consonant
with those of the well informed in some topical domains than others. Variance in the size of
information effects may also indicate that the specific questions included in general knowledge
scales have less relevance for particular topics posed in survey questions or for particular contexts in
which citizens are asked to make judgments. “Civics test” scales of political knowledge have been
forcefully criticized in recent years on precisely these grounds
(Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson
2002; Graber 1994, 2001; Lodge, McGraw, and Stroh 1989; Lodge, Steenbergen, and Brau 1995;
Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Popkin 1991)
. While this criticism falls short as a blanket
indictment—“civics test” knowledge clearly affects the responses people give in opinion surveys—it
seems likely that levels of general political knowledge may be more relevant to some kinds of
opinions than others. Lastly, since political knowledge is often used to predict chronic exposure to
public affairs information in the news media
(Price and Zaller 1993; Zaller 1992a, 1996)
, variance
in the size of information effects may be related to the intensity of news coverage given to different
political topics. Information effects might be smaller on some issues because news coverage about
those issues has reached even the most inattentive citizens, while larger information effects might
reflect the more typical situation where knowledge about an issue remains concentrated in a small
group of highly attentive citizens.
Solving this mystery requires that we clarify the mechanisms by which information effects are
produced in collective preferences. This paper examines some of the psychological and
environmental factors that can influence the quality and distributional characteristics of survey
responses. This analysis reveals that the impact of political knowledge on opinion is conditioned by a
complex array of influences. While the challenges are many that face ill-informed citizens in
matching preferences to interests, this analysis shows that those who are motivated to do so can
overcome the typical effects of limited knowledge. Environmental factors turn out to play a key role
in moderating the impact of political knowledge on surveyed opinion, which suggests that the keys to
addressing the problem of information effects may lie in the ways that governmental institutions,
leaders, and journalists prioritize, confront, and publicize political issues.


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