Does Ignorance Matter?

Does Ignorance Matter? The Relative Importance of Civic Knowledge and                            the Human Tendency to Engage in Motivated Reasoning

Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor Political Science, IUPUI

Sheila Suess Kennedy, Professor, Law and Public Policy, IUPUI



The importance of civic literacy is, and has long been, an axiom of democratic theory; a “generally-accepted belief that civic knowledge is an important foundation of democratic self-government” (McCabe and Kennedy 2014). Americans generally agree that a basic understanding of the structure and philosophy of government is a necessary precondition to productive political engagement or policy debate; a mutual understanding of the constitutional framework; agreement on the meaning of basic legal, economic and scientific terminology is necessary if there is to be common ground for discussion.

Former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton summarized this consensus, writing in 2003

The truth is, for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We’ve known this since the nation’s earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state’s founding document: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people,” they wrote, are “necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.”

It is this broad agreement on the importance of accurate, basic civic information that raises widespread concern about current, dangerously low levels of civic knowledge. A copious literature confirms the existence of a civic deficit: Only 36% of American citizens can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey 2007); Thirty-six percent of twelfth-grade students fail to achieve a basic level of civic knowledge (National Center for Education Statistics 2011); only 35.5% of American teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the U.S. Constitution (National Constitution Center Survey 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2010 report on civic competencies found that barely a quarter of the country’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders could be considered proficient in civics. (National Center for Education Statistics 2011). Numerous other studies confirm the extent of our civic deficit (Bennett 1995; Caplan 2008; Converse 2000; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1991, 1996; Shaker 2012).

Given the depth of the empirical literature demonstrating a broad public deficit of accurate civic information, a growing number of researchers and educators are working to identify best practices and to improve civics education in the schools. Peter Levine at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Civic Engagement (CIRCLE), Ted McConnell, Director of the National Council for the Social Studies Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, Shawn Healy, Chair of Illinois’ Civic Mission Coalition , Joseph Kahne, Director of Civic Engagement Research, Diana Hess of the Spencer Foundation, and the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI are just a few of the scholarly efforts currently underway. They are joined by programmatic endeavors: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s ICivics, the Bar Foundation’s sponsorship of the Center for Civic Education’s “We the People” curriculum and competition and several others.

These efforts to raise awareness of the issue and to identify measures that may ameliorate it are important. At the very least, a shared understanding of basic social and political institutions is necessary for communication to occur— a common reality, after all, is much like a common language. If we are looking to improvements in civic knowledge to reverse the political polarization that has paralyzed so much of our political system, however, the emergence of new lines of research in political psychology suggests we may well be disappointed.

Political Polarization

Theoretically, in order to have a productive argument, the participants need to have at least a basic agreement on the definitions of the terms being employed and the facts involved. The recent debates about the Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—are a case in point. Citizens debating that legislation may have very different opinions about the wisdom of the policy choices involved, but decisions to repeal, implement or amend the Act should be based upon agreement about what it actually says and does. If opposition to the policy is based upon “death panels” that don’t exist, or its defense is based upon an insistence that the individual mandate isn’t government coercion, the likelihood of reasoned discussion—let alone agreement on policy changes—disappears.

A similar example would be the ongoing battles over religion in the nation’s schools. There are genuine arguments to be made about the proper application of the Establishment Clause in the context of public education. But reasoned disputes require people who recognize that the First Amendment’s religion clauses require government neutrality in matters of religious exercise.

We certainly agree with those who advocate for the importance of a shared vocabulary and a conceptual common ground to facilitate legitimate and productive political debate and discourse. A common civic language—an agreement on the basic nature of our shared political reality—is necessary, but it may not be sufficient. An examination of two robust literatures, political science research on political polarization and partisan sorting, and political psychology research on motivated reasoning strongly suggests that efforts to calm the political waters by supplying accurate information, while necessary, may be inadequate to the task.

A comprehensive review of the literature on political polarization was conducted by Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams in 2008. Fiorina and Abrams surveyed the existing research, testing the “polarization narrative” that began in the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan famously “declared a culture war for the soul of America in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008). They noted the emergence of the “notorious red-blue map” after the 2000 election, and the acceptance of the polarization narrative by commentators and pundits (one of whom went so far as to compare Republicans and Democrats to Sunnis and Shias). Although the authors noted their agreement with the scholarly consensus that elites and Congress had, indeed, polarized, their review of the then available research convinced them that the situation for the public at large reflected partisan sorting, rather than polarization.

“The political positions of Americans had not become more polarized between the early 1970s and the early 2000s. Importantly, however, within the larger population the parties in the electorate had become more distinct. This change was a product of two other senses of polarization that the DiMaggio group identified: constraint (“the more closely associated different social attitudes become..”) and consolidation (“…the greater the extent to which social attitudes become correlated with salient individual characteristics or identities.”) (DiMaggio et al. 1996, p.693) In the last few decades of the twentieth century, inter-issue correlations were increasing, and partisans were becoming more closely associated with one or the other of the increasingly interconnected clusters” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008).

Whether this differentiation is called sorting or polarization, the authors agreed with other observers that it had occurred and appeared to be continuing. And they conceded that other scholars, notably Abramowitz and Saunders (2008) “believe that the process of partisan sorting has proceeded so far that it is accurate to speak of a polarized America.”

In the wake of Fiorina and Abrams’ influential and much-cited review, a number of other researchers have studied the phenomenon, with most agreeing that the partisan divide is increasing, especially among elites and in Congress (see, for example, Krasa and Polborn 2012).

To further complicate the search for common ground and collaborative policymaking, several political psychologists have found that partisans who are often quite well informed will reject “negatively valenced” information if that information is in conflict with their preferred worldview (Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson 2010), and still others have concluded that personality traits can predict a “considerable array of human behavioral patterns” (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013), including political preferences and behaviors. Indeed, Alford, Funk and Hibbing (2005) and Fowler, Baker and Dawes (2008), among others, have concluded that certain political behaviors and attitudes are genetically influenced and/or heritable. Personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience, sometimes referred to as the “Big Five,” have demonstrable effects upon political behavior. (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013).

Polarization, Political Sophistication and Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning research poses challenges to widely-held beliefs about the way in which individuals search for information. Theoretically, when people are engaged in learning about the world around them, the primary goal is accuracy. The good citizen watches the news, reads newspapers or blogs as part of an effort to gain an accurate understanding of the particular topic under investigation. Unfortunately, as emerging research underscores, this is not how people actually go about gathering information, if they choose to gather it at all. The reality is that people are motivated reasoners (Kunda 1987, 1990).

The concept of motivated reasoning is built on decades of research documenting the biased cognitive processes by which individuals gather and understand new information. It is an unconscious process that occurs through selective perception of reality. Once people have developed a worldview–an idea about how something works, or what they like and do not like– they are extremely resistant to information that would require them to change that worldview.

Research confirms that most people do not engage in a wide search for information in order to understand a subject from various perspectives. Instead, they engage in selective exposure (Lodge, Taber, and Galonsky 1999; Mutz and Martin 2001; Sweeney and Gruber 1984), which means that they seek out information that will confirm what they already know (or think they know) and avoid information sources that might challenge their beliefs. While it may be difficult to avoid all contrary information, encountering contradictory facts will not usually require the individual to change or adapt a preexisting framework; when people are faced with a variety of information, some that is confirmatory and some not, they simply ignore or actively argue against the evidence they don’t like, while uncritically accepting the data seen as confirmatory (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Lavine, Borgida, and Sullivan 2000; Taber and Lodge 2006). Furthermore, when faced with ambiguous information, people do not spend time learning more about the topic; instead, they interpret the ambiguous information so that it is consistent with their current beliefs (Fazio and Williams 1986; Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979; Vidmar and Rokeach 1974).

The consequences of motivated reasoning for politics can be quite troubling. This is especially the case when we consider its effects on a political system in which political polarization is increasing both within elites and the general public (Abramowitz 2010; Bishop 2008; Theriault 2008). As we have seen, the combination of motivated reasoning and increased partisanship leads to more deeply entrenched beliefs and a corresponding increase in unwillingness to compromise as partisans build self-serving, motivated realities. Barker and Carman’s (2012) recent work documents how different the realities are for citizens in Red versus Blue states, and Levendusky (2009) demonstrates how the increased sorting of average citizens into partisan camps has produced more polarized emotional responses to the parties. Politics thus becomes an “us versus them” competition. Taber, Cann, and Kucsova (2009) also find strong support for the polarizing effect of biased information processing (see also Slothuus and de Vreese 2010).

Indeed, the simple act of counting ballots can be affected by motived reasoning when the counting instructions are vague or ambiguous. In such situations, individuals fill in the gaps in a self-serving, highly partisan way (Kopko et al. 2011). Finally, Cohen (2003) shows through a serious of experiments that “even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated positons of one’s party.” And to top it off, “…participants denied having been influenced by their political group, although they believed that other individuals, especially their ideological adversaries, would be so influenced” (p. 808). Arguably, this kind of myopic adoption of the positions of one’s party is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Education is often proposed as the solution to the problem of political ignorance (Putnam 2000); it is thus reasonable to consider whether it can also solve the problem of motivated reasoning. Unfortunately, rather than moderating partisanship, political knowledge is often connected to an increase in polarization. Education has certainly been shown to be a good predictor of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Price and Zaller 1993), and it is equally demonstrable that politically knowledgeable citizens are those most likely to acquire political information and most able to incorporate it into their existing knowledge framework (Zaller 1992). A recent study by Gillion, Ladd, and Meredith (2013) showed that the gender gap in voting occurred first among the highly educated because they were the first to be aware of elite polarization. Claassen and Highton (2009) find the same dynamic. Polarization among party elites leads those individuals who are the most politically aware to follow suit. In a similar vein, Federico and Hunt (2013) show that individuals who are highly knowledgeable and heavily invested in politics are more likely to approach politics in an ideological fashion, and more likely to exhibit a polarized response to politics (see also Abramowitz 2010; Federico 2007; Judd and Krosnick 1989; Sidanius and Lau 1989; Zaller 2004).

The dilemma posed by what we now know about motivated reasoning is that it occurs no matter how educated or sophisticated the individual. In his examination of partisan sorting, Levendusky (2009) shows that the highly knowledgeable are just as likely to change their ideology to match their partisanship as the politically unsophisticated. Political theorists might hope that the politically sophisticated would privilege policy positions over their devotion to the correct “team,” but this is apparently not the case. In other somewhat disheartening research, Hartman and Newmark (2012) examined the motivated reasoning behind the belief that President Obama is a Muslim. It is not a shock to learn that this belief is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, but the fact that political sophistication does not appear to attenuate it is distressing.

To summarize, there is strong evidence indicating that political sophistication—rather than moderating ideological commitments—actually contributes to partisan polarization. We argue that this strengthening of the connection of the most highly engaged to a particular party is then reinforced through selective perception. This leaves the politically sophisticated open to significant ideological inconsistency. Ever since the early works of Converse (1964, 2000), it has been understood that the phenomenon of ideological thinking is not occurring in the mass public; it is instead a characteristic of a relatively small percentage of the most politically engaged Americans. But if even those few knowledgeable thinkers are susceptible to motivated blindness, then the prospects for a rational debate are rather dim.

Connecting Political Sophistication to Polarization—Data and Methods

In order to examine the effect of political sophistication and motivated reasoning on polarization, we conducted a national survey measuring partisanship, ideology, and political knowledge, along with specific questions about same-sex marriage. This was an online survey designed and hosted using Qualtrics online survey software. Survey Sampling International (SSI) was then contracted to provide over 2300 respondents. SSI maintains national online panels of respondents; it recruits participants from across the web using numerous methods, which gives them the ability to reach nearly anyone who uses the Internet.

For our survey, a quota method was used in order to match the survey’s demographic and gender distribution to that of the overall United States. Thus, this is not a representative sample of the U.S. population. However, since we were not attempting to estimate some characteristic of the U.S. population (for example, the percentage of the population who voted in the 2012 presidential election) that does not affect our results. We are interested in understanding the connection between cognitive processes and political beliefs. We are unaware of any variable that is correlated with participation in one of SSI’s panels and these cognitive processes that, if present, could bias these results. Furthermore, we control for numerous demographic and political variables, which further alleviates any concern about bias in the sample.

We produce two models. The first is designed to explain the source of the strength of respondents’ party identification. The survey contained standard questions designed to identify respondents’ partisanship following the method used in each American National Election Studies (ANES) survey.[1] This produces a seven-point scale ranging from strong Democrats on the left to strong Republicans on the right. Since we are interested in understanding the causes of polarization, we are more concerned with what drives individuals to the poles of these scales than what causes them choose one side or the other. Therefore, we fold this scale so that it ranges from independent (coded 0), leaning/weak partisan (coded 1), partisan (coded 2), and strong partisan (coded 3), resulting in a scale measuring respondents’ strength of partisan attachment (e.g., Dolan and Holbrook 2001).

We then include measures of political knowledge, education, and their interaction as key predictors of partisan strength. Political knowledge is measured on a nine-point scale and based on respondents’ ability to answer eight factual questions (Zaller 1992). These questions are copied directly from ANES and ask respondents to identify (1) Joe Biden, (2) John Boehner, (3) John Roberts, and (4) David Cameron; and whether they know which party controls the (5) House and the (6) Senate, (7) which party is more conservative, and (8) what the current unemployment rate is. Education is measured on a seven-point scale that indicates the highest level of educational attainment by the respondent.

Finally, the model also includes several standard control variables: Gender (coded 1 if male, 0 if female), race/ethnicity (1 if white, 0 otherwise), age (coded in years), household income (coded on a 10 point scale), and religious fundamentalism. This last variable is based on a General Social Survey question tapping respondents’ beliefs about the Bible as follows:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

  • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

This produces a three-point scale ranging from most (coded 0) to least (coded 2) religious fundamentalist.

The second model predicts a contradiction in the policy beliefs among respondents. There is ample scholarship suggesting that policy positions are the product of a process of motivated reasoning. Our survey asks two questions about religious freedom and same-sex marriage: 1) should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry? And 2) Do you think the federal or state governments should make laws regarding who religious organizations can and cannot marry? If one answers “no” to the second question, one should then not answer that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because that would be making a law restricting a religious organization’s marriage policies. This is an instance of individuals contradicting themselves on policy grounds. However, it may not necessarily be a contradiction for conservative Republicans who hold strong beliefs about smaller government and the legality of same-sex marriage. An individual engaged in motivated reasoning should be expected to make such a contradiction, with the strongest partisans and ideologues being the most susceptible. Thus, the comparison of respondents’ answers to these two questions produces our measure of policy contradiction.

The key independent variables in this case are partisanship and ideology. The more conservative and the more Republican one is, the more likely s/he is to answer these questions in a manner consistent with being a conservative Republican rather than in an ideologically consistent manner. The key to motivated reasoning is that partisanship and ideology interact to produce an effect that moves people away from a purely rational thought process by which one either does not accept government intervention in religious choices and thus accepts religious organizations decision to marry same-sex couples, or one is happy with government intervention in religious choices and thus okay with banning same-sex marriage. Simultaneously, disliking government restrictions on religion and liking government banning of same-sex marriage is the product of current partisan and ideological thinking. Those who engage in it are motivated to do so in order to protect their preferred set of beliefs through a form of self-affirmation (Steele 1988). Kahan (2013) finds strong evidence for this. His research shows that individuals are motivated to engage in information processing that reinforces their connection to important ideological groups. In this case a conservative self-identity. Following this line of reasoning, our supposition is that this effect should be most pronounced among the most extreme partisans and ideologues.

We measure partisanship as a set of dummy variables. (1) Republican, coded 1 if one identifies as Republican and 0 otherwise. (2) Democrat, coded 1 if one identifies as Democrat and 0 otherwise; and (3) Independent, coded 2 if one is independent and 0 otherwise. The Democrat variable is then dropped and becomes the comparison group for Republican and Independent when interpreting the results.[2] Ideology is measured on a 7 point scale ranging from 0 (strong liberal) to 6 (strong conservative), with a score of 3 indicating independent or none ideological. We then interact ideology with the Republican dummy variable in order to test for the conditional effect of each on the dependent variable. Finally, the model also includes the same control variables as the model predicting partisan strength above.

****Table 1 about here****

Table 1 presents results after estimation of the two models. The results of an Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression model predicting strength of party identification are presented in the first column, while the results of a logit model predicting the likelihood of holding contradictory beliefs about religious freedom and same-sex marriage are presented in column two. Focusing first on the model predicting partisan strength, one can see that political knowledge, education, and their interaction are all highly statistically significant. This means that the effect of political knowledge on strength of partisanship is conditional on the value of education and vice versa. The negative sign indicates that the effect of one variable diminishes as the value of the other goes up.

****Figure 1 about here****

Interaction effects are notoriously difficult to substantively interpret from an output table, thus Figure 1 presents a graphical look at how the effect of political knowledge changes as the highest level of educational attainment moves from having a high school diploma, to a college degree, to a graduate degree. Figure 1 makes clear that the effect of increasing political knowledge is strongest for those having only finished high school. Moving from a political knowledge score of 2 to a score of 7 is associated with an increase in partisan strength of about 3/4ths of a point. That is an 18 percent jump in one’s partisan leanings. The same type of gain in political knowledge for someone with a graduate degree shows virtually no movement in the strength of their partisanship. Interestingly, at low levels of political knowledge people with a high school diploma are the least partisan, while at the highest levels of political knowledge they are the most partisan. Therefore, it would seem that gaining political knowledge without education has a polarizing effect on people. This is a disturbing result for those advocating for civic learning outside of formal education. It would appear that this may simply exacerbate polarization.

Returning to Table 1, the logit model estimating policy preference contradiction includes an interaction between ideology and Republican identification. The interaction and ideology variables reach significance, but the Republican variable does not. This is not particularly surprising since the substantive meaning of that variable is the effect of being a Republican when compared to a Democrat when ideology equals zero, which represents strong liberalism. There are likely very few strongly liberal Republicans and the data cannot tell the difference between them and Democrats. The significant interaction indicates, once again, that the effect of partisanship is dependent on ideology and vice versa. Before looking at Figure 2, which helps clarify the interactive effect of ideology and partisanship, it should be noted that political knowledge and education fail to reach significance. Thus, there is no evidence in this data that political sophistication, as measured by either education or political knowledge, helps individuals avoid contradicting themselves. This is what one would expect when the driving force behind policy preferences is not rational calculation, but motivated reasoning to answer questions in a way that is consistent with one’s partisan and ideological positions.

****Figure 2 about here****

Figure 2 presents the predictive margins of the conditional effect of partisanship and ideology on the probability of contradicting oneself. As can be seen, on the left-hand side of the scale (scores 0-2), which correspond to liberal ideological leanings, there appears to be no discernable difference between Republicans and Democrats. But when one moves to the right-hand side (scores 4-6), which corresponds to increasingly conservative leanings, Republicans and Democrats respond much differently. To be sure, both see an increase in the probability of contradicting themselves, but the slope for Republicans is much steeper. For a strong conservative (score of 6), the probability of contradiction is about 23 percent greater if one is a Republican than a Democrat. Indeed, simply moving from a strong liberal to a strong conservative increases the probability of contradiction for Republicans by nearly 60 percent and about 35 percent for Democrats. This is the effect of motivated reasoning.

Is Civic Literacy Irrelevant?

If motivated reasoning “trumps” accurate information, will our politics inevitably be ideological and polarized? Is the effort to provide credible, evidence-based information a fools’ errand? Not necessarily. Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson (2010) explored just this question. The authors did not challenge the research on motivated reasoning, but they did test the thesis that a “tipping point” would be reached—that despite the tendency of motivated reasoners to ignore evidence inconsistent with their preferred beliefs (here, a candidate they viewed positively)—given enough negative information, attitude change would occur.

“The question here is whether there is a point at which the positive affect motivated reasoners try to maintain is overwhelmed by a growing threat to the existing evaluation as more incongruent information is encountered, and thus leading to more accurate updating” (Redlawsk, et al. 2010).

The authors noted that a small amount of evidence contradicting the motivated reasoner’s initial positive impression of a candidate had the effect of confirming that impression; that is, a moderate amount of incongruent information simply resulted in the individual clinging more stubbornly to his or her original beliefs. But at some point, mounting evidence inconsistent with those beliefs did, in fact, generate a change of opinion.

There is also hope of change if individuals are forced to pay attention to new information. Boudreau and MacKenzie (2013) looked at the effect of party cues and policy information in the context of support for ballot initiatives. They find that citizens do indeed privilege policy information over party cues when the policy information gives them a compelling reason to do so. Bullock (2011) found similar results. He concludes, “These results warrant a measure of optimism about partisans’ ability to hold meaningful policy views. To be sure, partisans are rarely exposed to more than meager descriptions of policy. But when they are, the results suggest that they can arrive at policy views that are independent of and even contrary to the views of their party leaders” (p. 512). Of course, these conclusions were the result of controlled experiments in which the audience was captive. The observed effect requires that citizens both receive the compelling information and take the time to understand it.

In another line of research, Binning et al. (2010) documented some success in reducing partisanship by having individuals affirm their self-integrity prior to watching the 2008 presidential debates. They gave randomly selected participants an opportunity to identify values important to them and asking them to write about a time when an important value affected them. The premise of self-affirmation theory is that people want to see themselves as good, moral and efficacious (Steele 1998; Sherman and Cohen 2006). These feelings often get intertwined with group identity. In politics, group identity means partisanship. When individuals reaffirmed their integrity, it lessened the connection to party identification and thus freed them to be more judicious when evaluating the presidential candidates.

Although this research is encouraging, it remains to be seen whether a tipping point exists at which ideology concedes to evidence. Learning that a favored candidate is not as admirable as once thought is one thing; accepting evolution or climate change and adjusting one’s literalist approach to religion accordingly is quite another. If the research tells us anything, it is that good information and civic literacy are necessary, but insufficient to rid us of polarization and a highly selective approach to evidence. It would seem that ignorance isn’t the only enemy of reason and political compromise.


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Table 1

Predicting Strength of Party Identification and Policy Preference Contradiction

Dependent Variable

Strength of                              Preference

Variable                                               Party ID                                  Contradiction


Political Knowledge                            0.232***                                 0.050

(0.026)                                                (0.031)

Education                                            0.207***                                 -0.011

(0.035)                                                (0.046)

Pol. Know. x Education                      -0.037***


Ideology                                              -0.064***                                0.420***

(0.014)                                                (0.065)

Republican                                                                                          -0.564


Ideology x Republican                                                                        0.284**


Independent                                                                                        0.486*



Control Variables

Male                                                    -0.150***                                0.200

(0.043)                                                (0.126)

White                                                  -0.076                                      -0.121

(0.045)                                                (0.137)

Age                                                      0.005***                                 0.018***

(0.001)                                                (0.004)

Household Income                              0.002                                       -0.043

(0.008)                                                (0.022)

Religious Fundamentalism                  -0.220***                                -0.800***

(0.030)                                                (0.092)

Constant                                             1.255***                                 -2.433***

(0.145)                                                (0.350)

N                                                         2237                                        2244

R2                                                        0.10

Log pseudolikelihood                                                                          -912.18

Notes: Strength of Party ID estimated using OLS. (Since this is a short scale running form 0-3, an ordered logit model was also estimated. The substantive results were identical and therefore the OLS results are presented here for easy of interpretation.) The Preference Contradiction model is estimated using logit.

*= p < .05, ** = p < .01, *** = p < .001, two-tailed.





Figure 1


Marginal Effect of Political Knowledge and Education on Strength of Party Identification








Figure 2


Marginal Effect of Ideology and Partisanship on the Probability of Holding Contradictory Policy Preferences







[1] Whenever possible, we simply copied the long established question wording used by either the American National Election Studies or General Social Survey. This provides for easy comparability and avoids the need to reestablish the credibility of survey question wording, since these are well established and understood survey instruments.

[2] See Wooldridge (2012) for an explanation as to why one of these variables needs to be dropped.

3 thoughts on “Does Ignorance Matter?

  1. Sheila; I’m sorry but this is too long for my old eyes and back. My ignorance does matter to me a great deal. Is there a book, “Civics for Dummies” or something similar available? There is so much I do not know and much of what I do know, I do not understand but wish I did. I really don’t know if I would be more or less afraid of these times if I knew more; I fear for this city, this state and the country, this is a different fear than post 9/11 because it is totally personal in nature. Thanks for all of your enlightenment, I appreciate the dedication it takes to provide these intelligent, informative blogs day after day. No idea how you do this, plus your classes, plus keeping abreast of all issues to inform us and still have a family life and find time to sleep.

  2. Lee Hamilton once gave a speech in Noblesville comparing the values of people in Seymour and Noblesville, saying they were essentially the same despite one being Democratic and the other being Republican. The communities’ political persuasions had persisted over time as families and newcomers assumed the political postures of their forebears and neighbors, but
    the residents of both towns were more alike than different. They were good folks who cared about and for their families, neighbors and communities; they worked hard; they were responsible; they shared many values and similarities.

    Accepting religious differences is more difficult than accepting political differences, though not impossible. Challenging one’s religious beliefs can be very unsettling, BUT learning more about one’s own and others’ faiths can also be illuminating, exhilarating, and an affirming bridge to those whose differences become smaller when compared to the similarities.

    We all love to have our biases confirmed, and we also love to learn. We love being smarter and expanding our ability to understand. While it’s dangerous for Americans to tune out current affairs, at some level I take momentary comfort in voters’ exasperation with super partisanship.

    Lee Hamilton is an example of one who eschewed partisanship to find common ground to fashion solutions. As his constituents demonstrated time and again, we love to be led by sensible, decent folks who we feel are a reflection of us and our values on our best days.

  3. There is much research going on along these lines and as more data is produced the picture becomes clearer. Knowledge and cultural cognition both contribute to positions taken by people on complex questions. Prior to this research it was simple to believe that we were all, more or less, open to learning and the more we learned about a topic the closer we’d get to a completely factual and therefore rational position.

    Now science has caught up with common sense and we realize that we are first cultural creatures and second rational humans.

    Certainly this revelation will help those of us trying to bring ration to center stage do so more effectively. It opens paths to new ways of teaching that consider both the knowledge level and cultural constraints of classrooms be they formal or spontaneous.

    However this knowledge equally empowers those “teaching” culture. Take the NRA or evangelicals or the Koch Bros as examples. They need to trump knowledge with cultural to fulfill their brand marketing goals. They now have data and knowledge that shows the aspects of culture which can overwhelm factual and scientific knowledge.

    Like policing and crime, sophistication helps both sides. An arms race.

    Progress lifts all boats be they of the pirate or humanitarian fleet.

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