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Do you really know why you hate the incumbent?

How much do you really know about politics and politicians? In a recently published study, researchers found a way to make people better at judging their own level of knowledge about candidates.

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Arthur Markman is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology. His research examines the way people think and reason, from the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning and categorization to decision-making and creativity. Markman also is an expert consultant to the Dr. Phil show and writes the blog “Ulterior Motives” for Psychology Today magazine.

How much do you really know about politics and politicians?

Election season is upon us. The news is filled with stories about primaries and the lineup of candidates for the November elections. If you live in a state with a contested race, then you hear lots of ads. Some of those ads pump up a particular candidate, but many of them also try to tear down the opponent. Politics is a vicious business.

A dangerous undercurrent in the current elections, though, is that the discussion of political issues is superficial and, frankly, it is often filled with lies. This is not my opinion.

The Web site PolitiFact.com works hard to ferret out truth and lies in statements made by politicians and candidates across the country. Perusing the front page of this Web site makes clear that there are a lot of statements made by politicians that rate as “Barely true” and even some that rate “Pants on fire” on their Truth-o-meter.

Despite the absence of good information in the environment, many voters have strong opinions. For example, TV images of Tea Party rallies are filled with strongly worded signs and interviews with voters who want to see incumbents taken out of office. On the other side of the political spectrum, some liberal Democrats have taken President Obama to task for not pushing health reform far enough.

Do these strong opinions reflect a real understanding of the issues?

This question was addressed in a paper by New York University Psychology and Marketing Professor Adam Alter, along with his collaborators Danny Oppenheimer and Jeffrey Zemla, in a September 2010 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They capitalized on a phenomenon called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth that was first described by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in a 2002 paper in the journal Cognitive Science.

Strong opinions

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth is the observation that people often believe that they understand things better than they do. For example, if you ask people whether they can explain common household objects like zippers, they will say that they can, and then are surprised to discover that there are often big gaps in the explanations they try to generate.

Alter, Oppenheimer and Zemla asked Democrats and Republicans about their opinions of the positions of a variety of political candidates during the 2008 presidential primary. In particular, they wanted to know whether people felt like they understood the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues like immigration, health care and taxes. Most people rated themselves as being fairly knowledgeable about the candidates. But then they were asked to actually describe a candidate’s position on an issue that they felt they understood. In fact, people were generally much less good at describing positions than they thought they would be. In fact, after writing this explanation, people rated their actual level of knowledge as much lower than they thought it was earlier.

Interestingly, though, these authors found a way to make people better at judging their own level of knowledge about candidates. Across a number of studies in this paper (most involving explanations of household objects), they found that when people think about objects specifically, they are better able to judge whether they understand how the object works than when they think about it abstractly. So, your belief about whether you can explain how a zipper works is better if you think specifically about whether you know how the parts of a zipper allow it to function than if you just think generally about whether you understand zippers.

The researchers used a procedure that generally makes people think either specifically about things or abstractly. To get them to think specifically, they asked people to describe how they perform common jobs like washing the dishes. To get them to think abstractly, they asked people to describe why they perform these jobs. Then, they had people rate how well they understood the policy positions of political candidates and how well that matched up with their actual ability to explain those positions.

People who were encouraged to think abstractly showed the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. They were far more confident in their ability to explain a candidate’s position than they should have been given their actual ability to explain it. People who were encouraged to think specifically did not show a strong Illusion of Explanatory Depth.

What does this mean for us?

Elections are important. The people who are elected to office will shape our lives. There are big problems out there that need to be solved, and there are legitimate disagreements about how to solve those problems.

Yet, it is clear that we often elect politicians without knowing why we like one and dislike the other. We hear very general words applied to candidates like “socialist,” “reactionary,” “dangerous” or “conservative” without knowing what those words really mean when applied to a candidate.

The results of this study suggest that, before we make up our minds about who to vote for, we should think specifically about the candidates. It is good to have passion for the election process, but it is better for that passion to be supported by knowledge.

Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.