When I saw the headline, I just sighed: “Americans think they know a lot about politics—and it’s bad for democracy that they’re so often wrong in their confidence.”
I sighed for two reasons: 1. The headline reflects what I’ve personally experienced while doing this job. 2. It’s depressing as hell.
The article, from The Conversation (a fantastic online publication you really should be reading), is by Ian Anson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland. He writes:
Over the past five years, I have studied the phenomenon of what I call “political overconfidence.” My work, in tandem with other researchers’ studies, reveals the ways it thwarts democratic politics.
Political overconfidence can make people more defensive of factually wrong beliefs about politics. It also causes Americans to underestimate the political skill of their peers. And those who believe themselves to be political experts often dismiss the guidance of real experts.
Political overconfidence also interacts with political partisanship, making partisans less willing to listen to peers across the aisle.
The result is a breakdown in the ability to learn from one another about political issues and events.
Anson explains that he did a survey of Americans, asking them basic questions about American politics. “In the experiment, some respondents were shown a series of statements that taught them to avoid common political falsehoods,” he explained. “For instance, one statement explained that while many people believe that Social Security will soon run out of money, the reality is less dire than it seems. My hypothesis was that most people would learn from the statements, and become more wary of repeating common political falsehoods.”
Alas, Anson explains, his hypothesis was wrong.
“Of the 1,209 people who participated, around 70% were overconfident about their knowledge of politics. But this basic pattern was not the most worrying part of the results. The overconfident respondents failed to change their attitudes in response to my warnings about political falsehoods. My investigation showed that they did read the statements, and could report details about what they said. But their attitudes toward falsehoods remained inflexible, likely because they—wrongly—considered themselves political experts.”
Anson tried to conclude his article in a positive way by suggesting that “social media companies and opinion leaders could seek ways to promote discourse that emphasizes humility and self-correction,” citing a new Twitter “pop-up message that asks would-be posters of news articles to ‘read before tweeting’” as a possible success.
Misinformation is one of the largest problems we’re facing in the United States—and that misinformation is feeding into another problem, which is extreme political polarization. All of us need to do what we can to make sure our information sources are accurate—and that we’re not making these problems worse by spreading misinformation.
Note: This is a slightly edited version of the editor’s note that appeared in the October 2022 print edition. Much of this column was originally published online in the Sept. 12 Indy Digest.