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Economists and Public Opinion: Expert Consensus and Economic Policy Judgments


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Principal Investigator(s):

Christopher D. Johnston
Duke University
Email: christopher.johnston@duke.edu
Home page: http://polisci.duke.edu/people?Gurl=&Uil=15084&subpage=profile

Sample size: 2394
Field period: 02/04/2013-10/02/2013


Abstract:

Given an increasing presence in the public sphere, what role do economic experts play in shaping public opinion on economic issues? In this paper, we examine the responsiveness of American public opinion on five economic policy issues to real information regarding the distribution of opinion on these issues among economists. We also examine the extent and role of trust in economists within the public. On average, we find meaningful changes in public opinion in the direction of expert consensus when citizens are given explicit information about expert opinion. However, we also find heterogeneity in citizen responsiveness across issues, such that aggregate opinion change is smaller on symbolic policy issues relative to technical ones. Further, on symbolic (but not technical) issues we find that citizens use judgments of the trustworthiness of economic experts in a motivated fashion, as a means of reinforcing prior opinions.

Hypotheses:

H1: Expert Influence: Exposure to information about expert consensus on economic issues (compared to lack of exposure) will, on average, increase the percentage of the public that agrees with the expert consensus.

H2: Issue Heterogeneity: Exposure to information about expert consensus on economic issues (compared to lack of exposure) will have different effects for different issues. On symbolic economic issues—over which most citizens have prior opinions—opinion change will be relatively small or non-existent. On technical economic issues for which most citizens do not have prior opinions, opinion change will be relatively large.

H3: Motivated Skepticism: On symbolic economic issues, citizens will use trust judgments of economic experts strategically to reinforce their preexisting opinions. Citizens whose priors are consistent with the expert consensus will show greater trust in economic experts following exposure to consensus information compared to conditions with no exposure to consensus information. Citizens whose priors are inconsistent with the expert consensus will show lesser trust in experts following exposure to consensus information compared to conditions with no exposure to consensus information.

Experimental Manipulations:

The experimental design is between-subjects, and respondents were randomly assigned to one of eleven conditions. In conditions one through five, respondents received a statement about one of five economic policies; each was asked, “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement?”, with response options “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Strongly Disagree,” and “Uncertain.” In conditions six through ten, respondents received policy statements identical to those in the no cue conditions, but each statement was prefaced by the following: “A sample of professional economists with widely varying political preferences was asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:” Respondents were then asked, “To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?” Response options were identical in both the no cue and the cue conditions, except that the distribution of economists’ responses to the statement was shown directly beneath each response option in the cue conditions. Respondents in all 10 of these conditions were then asked two questions regarding their trust in economists. Finally, in condition 11, respondents were asked only the two trust questions.

Key Dependent Variables:

We examine two sets of dependent variables: trust in economists and agreement or disagreement with the consensus policy position among economists on five economic issues.

Summary of Findings:

We find low to moderate levels of trust in economists on average. Nonetheless, we find meaningful changes in public opinion in the direction of expert consensus when citizens are given explicit information about expert opinion. However, we also find heterogeneity in citizen responsiveness across issues, such that aggregate opinion change is smaller on symbolic policy issues relative to technical ones. Further, on symbolic (but not technical) issues we find that citizens use judgments of the trustworthiness of economic experts in a motivated fashion, as a means of reinforcing prior opinions.

Additional Information:

References

Johnston, Christopher D. and Ballard, Andrew. 2014. "Economists and Public Opinion: Expert Consensus and Economic Policy Judgments." Also available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2479439

Media Coverage

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-08-25/who-cares-what-economists-say-about-immigration

http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/08/economists-and-public-opinion

 

 


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