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Political Knowledge, Political Thought, and Citizen Competence

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Principal Investigator(s):

Mathieu Turgeon
University of North Texas
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Sample size: 760
Field period: 6/22/2005 - 6/29/2005



Recent research has focused on the consequences of unsophisticated mass electorates for vote choices and policy preferences -- and thus the quality of democracy. Some authors have claimed negative consequences, while others have found that most citizens, most of the time, manage to approximate their full-information preferences and votes without much actual information. I accept the existence of some room for improvement but argue that citizens can do "better" simply by spending more time thinking about politics. If so, the hope of rendering mass publics more capable becomes less utopian than it would be if the only way of doing so were to increase their political knowledge. Using an internet-based survey-experiment designed to stimulate thought, I show that mere thought helps people develop attitudes that are more closely related to their own interests.


Mere thought helps people develop more "authentic" attitudes, that is, attitudes that are better reflective of underlying interests.

Experimental Manipulations:

The experimental design involves two treatment groups and a control group, all randomly assigned. Each subject was asked a question about his or her preferred level of federal intervention in the provision of health care services and another one about their current and past health care coverage. Subjects in the control and first treatment groups were also asked questions measuring their knowledge regarding health care in the U.S. Questions differ in their wording, ordering, and surrounding script, again to manipulate information and thought.
The control group was simply asked these questions in an unadorned, conventional way, with the health care question preceding the domain-specific knowledge questions. The control group has 247 respondents.

The first treatment group received the questions in the reverse order and was required to stop and think for 30 seconds before answering the health care question. Respondents were urged to think carefully about the various aspects of the question before answering it (e.g., thinking about the reasons for or against it and how it could impact her welfare, that of her family, or that of the country as a whole). The knowledge questions are balanced, and their order was randomized. The first treatment group has 251 respondents.

The second treatment group first received information about health care in the U.S. and then was asked the health care question without the stop-and-think prompt, just as in the control group. The information was a list of five facts, randomly ordered, constituting the correct answers to knowledge questions being asked of the other groups. The respondents were not asked the knowledge questions, just given the facts constituting the correct answers. The facts were displayed on a one-page screen with no need to scroll. The second treatment group has 262 respondents.

Key Dependent Variables:

Attitudes toward the role of the U.S. federal government in the provision of health care services.

Summary of Findings:

It was hypothesized that increased thought produces more "authentic" attitudes, that is, attitudes that are more closely related to people's underlying interests. After estimating a model explaining attitudes toward the role of the federal government in the provision of health care services, I showed that subjects in the thought condition better aligned their own interests, as proxied by their income and past and current health care coverage, with their attitude on health care. Subjects with a low income were expected to favor greater federal government intervention in the provision of health care services and those with a high income to prefer less government intervention in health care. This relationship was found to be strongest for subjects in the thought condition, suggesting a role for thought in helping people develop more "authentic" attitudes.


This project examines the impact of thought on political attitudes. The hypothesis is that increased thought, even absent increased information, can help people reach attitudes more closely related to their interests. For many subjects, the high thought conditions are admittedly counterfactual--in reality, most people do not usually spend much time thinking about politics--but that reality is variable and possibly tractable. There are occasions--notably, elections--on which many people do give politics increased thought. In any case, it is probably easier to induce people to think more about what they already know than to make them learn more. That, indeed, is one of the practical implications of the results. It may be added that while we have learned a good deal about the determinants of survey responses, we do not yet know anything about the effects of thought. Thus, this project also carries lessons for survey construction, since the sequencing and wording of questions may affect the attitudes shown.

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