Bryan Caplan  

Systematically Biased Beliefs About Political Influence: The Working Paper

Jack Calfee, RIP... Systematically Biased Beliefs ...
My co-authors and I finally have a working paper based on our 2008 survey of the general public and political scientists.  Many thanks to all the EconLog readers who helped along the way

Here's the basic idea from the intro.  Corrections and suggestions in the comments will be much appreciated.

Voters are not merely ignorant; their beliefs about policy-relevant subjects are often systematically biased.  Voters systematically overestimate the fraction of the federal budget spent on foreign aid and welfare, and underestimate the fraction spent on Social Security and health. (Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University 1995)  Less-informed voters favor systematically different policies than otherwise identical more-informed voters. (Althaus 2003, 1998, 1996)  Laymen's beliefs about economics, the causes of cancer, and toxicology systematically diverge from the beliefs of experts, even when matched on traits like income, employment sector, job security, demographics, party identification, and ideology. (Caplan and Miller 2010; Caplan 2007, 2002; Lichter and Rothman 1999; Kraus, Malmfors, and Slovic 1992)  Voters also tend to discount evidence in conflict with their pre-existing beliefs. (Taber and Lodge 2006; Bullock 2006; Nyhan and Reifler 2010)  Taken together, the evidence raises a troubling question: If politicians cater to the policy preferences of the median voter, won't inefficient and counter-productive policies win by popular demand? 

The strongest reply to this concern is that citizens vote for results, not policies...  One simple heuristic - reward success, punish failure - seems to allow voters with little, zero, or even negative knowledge about policy to extract socially desirable behavior from their leaders.

Unfortunately for democracy, this heuristic is not as foolproof as it seems.  In order to reward success and punish failure, voters need to know which government actors - if any - are able to influence the various outcomes voters care about. (Arceneaux 2006; Anderson 2006; Cutler 2008, 2004; Rudolph and Grant 2002; Somin 1998; Lewis-Beck 1997; Leyden and Borrelli 1995; Kerr 1975) 


The real danger to democracy comes from systematically biased beliefs about political influence. (Caplan 2007; Rabin 1998; Thaler 1992; Gilovich 1991)  Just as the market for automobile repair will work poorly if the average customer blames his grocer for engine trouble, local elections will work poorly if the average voter blames the president for the quality of public schools. 

To test the American public's beliefs about political influence for systematic bias, we designed a new survey, and administered it to two distinct groups: (1) a nationally representative sample of Americans, and (2) members of the American Political Science Association who specialize in American politics.  One of the main ways that scholars have tested for the presence of systematic bias on other topics is to see whether average beliefs of laymen and experts diverge. (Caplan 2007; Lichter and Rothman 1999; Kraus, Malmfors, and Slovic 1992)...  If laymen and experts' average beliefs differ, our defeasible presumption is that experts are right and laymen are wrong.

Systematically biased attributional beliefs turn out to be common and large.  Fully 14 out of 16 survey questions exhibit statistically significant biases.  Compared to experts in American politics, the public greatly overestimates the influence of state and local governments on the economy, the president and Congress on the quality of public education, the Federal Reserve on the budget, Congress on the Iraq War, and the Supreme Court on crime rates.  The public also moderately underestimates the influence of the Federal Reserve on the economy, state and local governments on public education, and the president and Congress on the budget.  While we are open to the possibility that non-cognitive factors explain observed belief gaps, controlling for demographics and various measures of self-serving and ideological bias does little to alter our results.  A full set of controls reduces the absolute magnitude of the raw belief gaps by less than 13% - and leaves the number of statistically significant lay-expert differences unchanged.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

This is great. My only thought is to further qualify that even when voters know what actors to think about when thinking of specific policy issues, that is still no guarantee. I don't know the behavioral literature well, but I'm sure people rarely think in terms of counterfactuals (even if they do, no one is able to nail down a counterfactual anyway). If they can't do that, how can they even implement your heuristic successfully? "I made the economy get worse less badly" is not really a campaign slogan even if voters know which politician to try to evaluate.

Chris lemens writes:

I have long thought that a recurrent problem with our republic is that elected legislators love to delegate lots of responsibility to agencies (especially commissions) with heads (or groups of commissioners) that are appointed for terms of years that have nothing to do with elections. This lets the legislators say that they did something; and when the agency gets it wrong (as all agencies do eventually), the legilsators have someone to grill at a hearing while being able to say that they didn't have responsibility for hat the agency was doing.

To bring the point back to the study, I wonder whether there are any states where the state legislature has delegated dramatically less authority to appointed agencies. If so, it would be interesting to study whether citizens of those states are more successful at determining who is responsible for what (at least at the state level). To put it another way, can citizens not see truth because of their own eyesight or the politicians' fog?


Joe Bridges writes:

How did the ignorant public ever get anywhere before the New Deal. Did the author's ever stop to think that the public isn't ignorant at all, but that politicians, professors, and so-called experts can't communicate effectively to save their lives, much less "educate" the public.

How did America ever survive before the rise of "esperts." What utter self-serving nonsense. Americans understand how to run their own affairs perfectly well. They don't comprehend the lunacy of government, which of course should be defunded as done away with as soon as possible.

David writes:

"...the public greatly overestimates the influence of state and local governments on the economy..."

I think that is interesting, and definitely not true in my experience. Everyone I know seems to think the president has a magic wand that can make the economy good or bad while giving no blame or credit to local politicians.

Neal W. writes:

My apologies if I missed it in the paper, but how big of difference do you consider to be evidence of a bias?

fundamentalist writes:
One of the main ways that scholars have tested for the presence of systematic bias on other topics is to see whether average beliefs of laymen and experts diverge.

Sounds like a study to prove that water is wet. The public doesn't know as much as experts! Who'd a thunk it!

However, several studies have shown that when given essentially the same knowledge as experts have about a particular situation, the public is as good as experts at forecasting.

It's not bias or irrationality; it's pure ignorance.

The public is ignorant about many issues because they rely on the rational division of labor. Issues important to them they become expert in. Lesser issues they farm out their opinion to people they trust. The most trusted professions are professors, clergy and the media.

If the public has bad information about economics or politics, it's because the trusted professions are feeding them bad information. Imagine that! The mainstream media giving false information about something! In the US? Nah!

Mo writes:

Interesting stuff, but:

1. It would be nice if you posted these papers in PDF.

2. You really should write these in LaTeX. It looks so much more professional, is easier to read, and your tables would look 100x better. I see this last as a main benefit. Not to be mean but your paper looks like a high school term paper.

3. In one of the tables, what is a z-stat? I know what a Z test is and a t-stat. Looks like Google doesn't even know what a "z-stat" is? Just post t-stats or p-values or standard errors so all of us can understand.

Philo writes:

"If laymen['s] and experts' average beliefs differ, our defeasible presumption is that experts are right and laymen are wrong." Could you give a few current examples in which you regard this presumption as being "defeated"?

N. writes:

I would also be interested to know to what extent politicans are biased in ascribing influence to themselves...

Right Wing-nut writes:

This is really juicy. "Influence of Congress on the Iraq War"? If this isn't an item that exposes a political bias, I don't know what is. Besides "the influence of the Supreme Court on crime".

So, if a question was posed in the '30s regarding Keynian economic theory, what would the divergence represent?

The social sciences, and the recursively defined experts, are NOT in the same realm as physicists & biologists, let alone mathematicians. Not that the hard sciences are bias-free, but it is at least theoretically possible for them to be so, and (generally) the rewards lie in that direction. The opposite is true of the soft sciences.

A Le Roy writes:

Bryan, I like your past book ... though I thought "Blind leading the blind" was a better title. In this study your are comparing the blind with the blind. While the public will for sure be biased, I am not too confident about your expert population, in many ways they are probably worse (or I am way too biased myself). "Vaterland unter Professoren du bist verloren."

Master of None writes:

If the goal of the paper is to convince experts, you are done.

If the goal is to convince the laymen, you have a long road ahead of you.

And if the latter isn't the goal, then you're wasting your time.

Dave writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Tom writes:

This really does tie back to the dilemma presented in the debate between technocracy and democracy that was articulated by Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. After the findings of Stealth Democracy it is good to know someone is looking at the problem of the "phantom public" and how to make sure they are not pressuring their representatives to enact bad policy.

James Hanley writes:

The data reported here matches my causal subjective experience as a political scientist. I avoid telling people I meet what my discipline is, because I inevitably have to listen to their depressingly wrong interpretations of politics.

I've thought of calling myself something like an autocognitive neuropathologist. I assume anyone who figured out I was bullshitting them would be worth talking to.

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