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Explaining Information Effects in Collective Preferences
Unformatted Document Text:  <A> What Causes Information Effects? This paper investigates four potential factors that may help account for variance in the size of information effects across different types of survey questions: question format and mode effects produced by the survey method itself; the attitude structures and information processing strategies used by people with varying levels of knowledge; the social distribution of policy-specific knowledge relative to general political knowledge; and variations in issue salience among well- and ill-informed respondents. The impact of these factors can be shaped by the information environments in which respondents construct, update, and change their opinions, as will be demonstrated in a case study of opinion toward gay rights. It is unclear which of these factors is most responsible for the differences between surveyed and “fully informed” opinions, and other variables associated with political knowledge also might be contributing to the appearance of information effects. Nonetheless, these four possibilities seem especially good starting points for understanding how and why information effects arise in collective preferences. To spare the reader from wading through a large amount of relevant but tedious details about the data and simulation methods used here, most of the methodological details relevant to this paper are reported in a separate methodological appendix, which contains information about the survey questions, knowledge indexes, and simulation procedures used to produce estimates of information effects reported below. <B> Question Format and Survey Mode Effects The results of sample surveys are often interpreted as simply reflecting the mix of opinions that exist “out there” in a population. Seen from this perspective, surveys act as mirrors or spotlights that make public the normally private views held by the broad range of citizens on pressing matters of the day. However, an alternative perspective holds that surveys can create the very thing they appear to reveal (Blumer 1948; Ginsberg 1986; Weissberg 2002a, 2002b; see also Zaller 1992; Zaller and Feldman 1992). In the extreme version of this view, “public opinion does not exist” (Bourdieu 1979) independently of the survey instrument used to measure it. Critics of the survey enterprise

Authors: Althaus, Scott.
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<A>
What Causes Information Effects?
This paper investigates four potential factors that may help account for variance in the size of
information effects across different types of survey questions: question format and mode effects
produced by the survey method itself; the attitude structures and information processing strategies
used by people with varying levels of knowledge; the social distribution of policy-specific
knowledge relative to general political knowledge; and variations in issue salience among well- and
ill-informed respondents. The impact of these factors can be shaped by the information environments
in which respondents construct, update, and change their opinions, as will be demonstrated in a case
study of opinion toward gay rights. It is unclear which of these factors is most responsible for the
differences between surveyed and “fully informed” opinions, and other variables associated with
political knowledge also might be contributing to the appearance of information effects. Nonetheless,
these four possibilities seem especially good starting points for understanding how and why
information effects arise in collective preferences.
To spare the reader from wading through a large amount of relevant but tedious details about
the data and simulation methods used here, most of the methodological details relevant to this paper
are reported in a separate methodological appendix, which contains information about the survey
questions, knowledge indexes, and simulation procedures used to produce estimates of information
effects reported below.
<B>
Question Format and Survey Mode Effects
The results of sample surveys are often interpreted as simply reflecting the mix of opinions that
exist “out there” in a population. Seen from this perspective, surveys act as mirrors or spotlights that
make public the normally private views held by the broad range of citizens on pressing matters of the
day. However, an alternative perspective holds that surveys can create the very thing they appear to
reveal (Blumer 1948; Ginsberg 1986; Weissberg 2002a, 2002b; see also Zaller 1992; Zaller and
Feldman 1992). In the extreme version of this view, “public opinion does not exist”
(Bourdieu
1979)
independently of the survey instrument used to measure it. Critics of the survey enterprise


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