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Explaining Information Effects in Collective Preferences
Unformatted Document Text:  <A> Conclusion Information effects are not merely artifacts of the survey process itself. 30 More importantly, the relationship between knowledge and opinion quality is neither constant nor inevitable, even among the ill informed. Information effects are not merely a function of cognitive ability. This is welcome news, because it confirms that collective preferences can represent something like “fully informed” opinions without submitting the masses to weekly doses of Time and Newsweek. Rather, information effects vary in size and duration. They do so because the relationship between knowledge and opinion quality is ultimately conditioned by the changing political environment in which citizens develop and refine their preferences. The political environment influences the social diffusion of domain-specific knowledge across populations, so that under the right conditions even those who inhabit the lowest percentiles of general political knowledge can be relatively informed on particular issues like the budget deficit. The political environment primes people to evaluate issues using some attitudes rather than others, and when the attitudes thus primed are themselves unaffected by knowledge gaps, smaller information effects result. The political environment encourages citizens to update their preferences in response to new developments, and it influences the perceived salience of issues in ways that can motivate the ill informed to render more thoughtful judgments than they might otherwise produce for the anonymous interviewer calling from far away. As a consequence, information effects may tend to be smaller for issues that receive prominent media attention and larger for issues that have remained out of the public spotlight (see Shamir and Shamir 1997) . This relationship between news coverage and the size of information effects suggests that the social distribution of issue salience may be a key motivating factor that conditions the impact of cognitive ability. The size of information effects goes down as levels of salience and interest in politics go up. Issue salience seems to act as an accelerant in conjunction with political knowledge: 30 Future research on the determinants of dispersion effects and opinion convergence may want to explore more nuanced features of the survey instrument that could lead to information effects. Recent work has identified subtle elements of syntax and word choice in survey questions that tend to produce response errors (e.g., Schwarz and Sudman 1996), and a careful analysis of such factors might reveal a stronger relationship between question format and information effects. In particular, features of the question that increase task difficulty at different stages of the question answering process might be associated with different influences on the opinions of ill-informed respondents (Lessler and Forsyth 1996).

Authors: Althaus, Scott.
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<A>
Conclusion
Information effects are not merely artifacts of the survey process itself.
30
More importantly, the
relationship between knowledge and opinion quality is neither constant nor inevitable, even among
the ill informed. Information effects are not merely a function of cognitive ability. This is welcome
news, because it confirms that collective preferences can represent something like “fully informed”
opinions without submitting the masses to weekly doses of Time and Newsweek. Rather, information
effects vary in size and duration. They do so because the relationship between knowledge and
opinion quality is ultimately conditioned by the changing political environment in which citizens
develop and refine their preferences. The political environment influences the social diffusion of
domain-specific knowledge across populations, so that under the right conditions even those who
inhabit the lowest percentiles of general political knowledge can be relatively informed on particular
issues like the budget deficit. The political environment primes people to evaluate issues using some
attitudes rather than others, and when the attitudes thus primed are themselves unaffected by
knowledge gaps, smaller information effects result. The political environment encourages citizens to
update their preferences in response to new developments, and it influences the perceived salience of
issues in ways that can motivate the ill informed to render more thoughtful judgments than they
might otherwise produce for the anonymous interviewer calling from far away.
As a consequence, information effects may tend to be smaller for issues that receive prominent
media attention and larger for issues that have remained out of the public spotlight
(see Shamir and
Shamir 1997)
. This relationship between news coverage and the size of information effects suggests
that the social distribution of issue salience may be a key motivating factor that conditions the impact
of cognitive ability. The size of information effects goes down as levels of salience and interest in
politics go up. Issue salience seems to act as an accelerant in conjunction with political knowledge:
30 Future research on the determinants of dispersion effects and opinion convergence may want to explore
more nuanced features of the survey instrument that could lead to information effects. Recent work has identified
subtle elements of syntax and word choice in survey questions that tend to produce response errors (e.g., Schwarz
and Sudman 1996), and a careful analysis of such factors might reveal a stronger relationship between question
format and information effects. In particular, features of the question that increase task difficulty at different stages
of the question answering process might be associated with different influences on the opinions of ill-informed
respondents (Lessler and Forsyth 1996).


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