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Misperceptions of Public Opinion on Foreign Trade Policy and Their Implications


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Principal Investigator(s):

Alexander Todorov
Princeton University
Email: atodorov@princeton.edu
Home page: http://tlab.princeton.edu/

Anesu N. Mandisodza
New York University
Email: anesum@nyu.edu
Home page: http://www.psych.nyu.edu/tropelab/people/anesu-mandisodza.html

Sample size: 1044
Field period: 02/14/2003 - 02/24/2003

 

Abstract:

We found wide discrepancies between actual and perceived public opinion about the role of the US in the world. While Americans strongly prefer a multilateral foreign policy, they substantially overestimate public support for a unilateral policy. These misperceptions of public opinion affected subsequent judgments of specific policies. For example, controlling for attitudes, respondents who falsely perceived the unilateral view as the majority view were 1.84 times more likely to support a Presidential decision to invade Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council than respondents who correctly perceived the unilateral view as the minority view. However, feedback about public opinion did not affect support for specific policies. Correlational data indicated that misperceptions of public opinion affected respondents' belief in the legitimacy of the current foreign policy, and that this belief was a strong predictor of support for specific unilateral policies.

Hypotheses:

H1: There would be large differences between actual and perceived public opinion about the role of the US in the world. Specifically, respondents would overestimate public support for a unilateral policy.

H2: Respondents who falsely perceive the unilateral view as the majority view would be more likely to support specific unilateral policies than respondents who perceive this view as the minority view.

H3: Respondents who are given feedback about the actual public opinion should be less likely to support specific unilateral policies.

Experimental Manipulation:

Respondents were randomly assigned to three different conditions with equal probabilities. These conditions differed with respect to the first three questions about the role of the US in the world. In the control condition (n=363), respondents were asked to report their own attitudes. In the estimation condition (n=337), in addition to reporting their attitudes, respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of Americans endorsing unilateral or multilateral views. In the feedback condition (n=344), after reporting their own attitudes, respondents were given feedback about the proportion of Americans who endorse each of the positions stated in the questions.

Key Dependent Variables:

After the initial 3 questions, all respondents were asked to report their opinions on a set of specific policies. Two of the questions asked about Iraq: whether the US should act now rather than wait for its allies and whether respondents would agree with a presidential decision to invade Iraq without the support of the UN Security Council. One question asked whether respondents approved the shift in the defense strategy of the US from deterrence to preemptive action (the terms were explained in the question). Respondents were also asked to what extent the international policy of the Bush administration reflects the opinions of the American people.

Additional Information:

The survey was a web-based survey of persons 18 years or older. A total of 1,539 people were contacted. The survey completion rate was 68% giving a final sample size of 1,044 people. The survey was sent out to all potential respondents on February 14, 2003 and the completed surveys were received electronically between February 14 and February 24, 2003.

Summary of Findings:

As shown in Table 1, on all 3 questions about the role of the US in the world, respondents overestimated public support for unilateral views. The ratios of estimated support to actual support for unilateral views ranged from 1.48 to 2.15. These misperceptions were widely shared among different demographic groups of respondents. As shown in Table 2, respondents who falsely perceived the unilateral view as the majority view were more likely to support a presidential decision to invade Iraq without UN support. However, feedback about public opinion did not affect respondents´┐Ż support for specific policies. Additional analyses on the group of respondents who estimated public opinion suggested mechanisms of how misperceptions could affect support for specific policies. As shown in Fig. 1, misperceptions increased the belief that the foreign policy is legitimate, which in turn increased support for specific policies such as the shift in the defense strategy of the US.

Figures/Tables:

Conclusion:

Americans have a strong preference for a multilateral foreign policy. General multilateral and unilateral attitudes are important, because they are strong predictors of support for specific policies such as invading Iraq despite the disapproval of the Security Council of the UN. However, public opinion is different from perceived public opinion. Respondents overestimated actual support for unilateral policies, and these misperceptions seemed to affect their support for such policies. At the same time, we failed to show that providing feedback about actual public opinion affects respondents' judgments. However, building on the current study, we designed a follow up survey conducted in August, which did show that appropriately provided feedback reduces the belief in the legitimacy of foreign policy, which leads to reduced support for specific unilateral policies. The new experimental data (to be released soon) support the model shown in Fig. 1.

References:

Todorov, A., and A. N. Mandisodza. 2004. "Public opinion on foreign policy: The multilateral public that perceives itself as unilateral." Public Opinion Quarterly 68:323.

Todorov, A., & Mandisodza, A. N. 2003. Public opinion on foreign policy: The multilateral public that perceives itself as unilateral. Policy Brief. Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.


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