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Consequences of Misperceptions of Public Opinion for Support of Specific Foreign Policies


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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: 1186
Field period: 08/15/2003- 09/04/2003

 

Abstract:

Although Americans have a strong preference for a multilateral role of the US in the world, they substantially overestimate public support for a unilateral role. A previous study (Todorov & Mandisodza, in press) showed that such misperceptions are associated with the belief that the current foreign policy reflects the opinions of the American public and that this belief is a powerful determinant of support of unilateral policies. To test whether such misperceptions have a causal impact on this belief, respondents were randomly assigned either to receive or not to receive information about the actual public opinion. Respondents who received such information were less likely to believe that the current foreign policy reflects the opinions of the American public and less likely to support potential unilateral actions such as bombing a nuclear facility in North Korea without the approval of the UN.

Hypotheses:

- Respondents who are provided with information about the actual public opinion on the role of the US in the world should be less likely to believe that the current foreign policy is legitimate than respondents who rely on their subjective estimates of public opinion.

- This effect should be especially pronounced when the question measuring the perceived legitimacy of foreign policy is salient, i.e. asked immediately after the information about public opinion is provided.

- Undermining the perceived legitimacy of the current foreign policy should lead to decreased support for specific unilateral policies.

Experimental Manipulations:

The experimental design was 2 (Information about public opinion: presented vs. not) X 2 (Salience of legitimacy question: asked either immediately after the information about public opinion is provided vs. at the end of the survey). Respondents were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions. Information about public opinion was presented in the context of a quiz about the opinions of other Americans. Respondents were asked to estimate these opinions and then provided with opinions from a recent national survey.

Key Dependent Variables:

Questions measuring the extent to which respondents perceive the international policy of the Bush administration as representing the opinions of the American people, agreement that the US has the right to bomb a nuclear facility in North Korea without the approval of the UN, and approval of the shift in the defense strategy of the US from deterrence to preemptive action.

Additional Information:

The survey was a web-based survey of persons 18 years or older. A total of 1,535 people were contacted. The survey completion rate was 77% giving a final sample size of 1,186 people. The survey was sent out to all potential respondents on August 15, 2003 and the completed surveys were received electronically between August 15 and September 4, 2003.

Summary of Findings:

As shown in Table 1, respondents who were provided with information about the actual public opinion were less likely to believe that the foreign policy of the administration reflects the opinions of the American public than respondents who estimated this opinion and were not provided with actual survey data. This effect was more pronounced when the question was asked immediately after the information about public opinion was provided. Respondents who received information about public opinion were also less likely to approve the shift in the defense strategy of the US from deterrence to preemptive action and to support potential unilateral actions such as bombing a nuclear facility in North Korea without the approval of the UN. Additional analyses showed that these effects were mediated by the effect of information on the perceived legitimacy of foreign policy, i.e. the belief that this policy reflects the opinions of the American public.

Figures/Tables:

Conclusion:

Americans have a strong preference for a multilateral role of the US in the world, but they overestimate public support for a unilateral role. These misperceptions boost the belief that the current foreign policy reflects the opinions of the American public. This belief provides legitimacy to foreign policy and is a powerful determinant of support of specific unilateral policies.

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. 2004. "Misperceptions of public opinion on foreign policy and their consequences for support of specific policy decisions." Paper presented at the 59th annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Phoenix, Arizona, May 13-16

Mandisodza, A., & Todorov, A. 2004. "Differences between prospective and retrospective support for the war with Iraq: How to transform a minority-supported policy into a majority-supported policy." Poster presented at the 59th annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Phoenix, Arizona, May 13-16


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