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Facts, schmacts; what's in it for me?

Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.

Because you should never abandon the baseball team you were raised with, I am a Houston Astros fan. This hasn’t been easy most years. This year it’s particularly difficult, though things have been better lately, especially last weekend’s four-game sweep over the highly paid Anaheim Alberts.

If you called me up and asked me a series of questions about baseball, I would estimate that Bud Norris has a dozen wins already and that Chris Carter is leading the league in home runs. This is cheerleading. It’s what fans do.

But if you offered to pay me for correct answers, I might admit that with this club, Bud Norris, who has five wins, will be lucky to have 12 by October and that Chris Carter is on pace to set the single-season record for strikeouts. You shouldn’t have to bribe me for honest answers, but hey, it’s only baseball.

Now suppose I got a call from a polling company asking me a series of factual questions about political issues. Say they asked me about how much of the federal budget was spent servicing the national debt. The correct answer is about 6.2 percent, but if I’m a conservative, I might say 15 percent because it makes my team look good. If I’m a liberal, I might say 3 percent because I’d like to see more federal spending. Under no circumstances would I admit that I didn’t know, because that might make me look uninformed.

But what if they paid me, not only for correct answers, but for admitting when I didn’t know? Last month, in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, four scholars suggested that people questioned in surveys often know more than they admit. Sometimes, for the sheer joy of letting their partisan dogs out, they’ll give answers that they know are incorrect.

Just as people enjoy rooting for their favorite sports team and arguing that their team’s players are superior, even when they are not, surveys give citizens an opportunity to cheer for their partisan team, the study reported. Deep down, however, individuals understand the true merits of different teams and players or, at the minimum, they understand that they don’t know enough to support their expressive responding as correct.

The study was done by four researchers John G. Bullock, Alan S. Gerber and Gregory A. Huber of Yale University and Seth J. Hill at UC San Diego. They’re in the business of studying voter behavior.

In many ways, voting is an irrational act; the chances that any individual’s vote will affect an election are minimal. Thus, the time spent on voting and politics is time stolen from other, perhaps more profitable, useful or enjoyable activities.

Nevertheless, democracy works, even if it’s hard to explain how. It might work better if everyone acknowledged the same set of facts, but cheerleading makes that difficult. At the very least, it’s important that policymakers know that partisanship is skewing public opinion.

Bullock, et al., set out to quantify the effect of partisanship on survey results. They asked questions that had empirical answers. Not opinion questions like How well do you think Congress is doing its job? but things like, What direction is the unemployment rate going? Their paper is full of mathematical formulas, but the end result seems to be this: When you offer people incentives for providing correct answers, the gap between correct and incorrect answers shrinks by 55 percent to 60 percent.

Like good scientists, they had a control group that took the survey straight. The second group was offered a chance in a raffle for a $200 Amazon gift card for correct answers. The percentage of correct answers rose sharply.

In a second study, they wanted to minimize the number of clueless people who were just throwing out answers as cheerleaders. So they offered smaller incentives, 50 cents to a dollar, for people to admit they didn’t know the answer. The correct-to-incorrect gap shrank by 80 percent.

Would I sell out the Astros for 50 cents? Of course not. Would I sell them out for a chance at a $200 gift card? I might, depending how many other people are in the pool. But baseball is just a game.

Politics is not a game, but it’s treated as one. There is no end to the number of studies that demonstrate how ignorant people are about public affairs. My favorite baseline number: From Dan Quayle to Joe Biden, a constant 40 percent of Americans aren’t able to name the sitting vice president.

Opinions are one thing. But now we’ve become so estranged that even when we know the facts, some of us won’t admit them at least not for free when they don’t favor our side of the argument. Since when did America’s motto become, What’s in it for me?

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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