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Research Shows Deeper Knowledge Not Necessarily Motivating for Voters

Voter at polls

An idealistic vision of democracy pictures a “marketplace of ideas” where people deliberate carefully before reaching a political decision. Results from a new study by AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Professor and Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies David Barker suggest the more people actually do that, the worse democracy functions.

The article, “Cognitive Deliberation, Electoral Decision Making, and Democratic Health,” appeared in a recent issue of the Social Science Quarterly. Barker analyzed national survey data from 2004 to see if encouraging deeper thinking and reflection of issues among citizens would translate into increased political participation and better decision-making at the polls.

Barker’s research found that citizens who were exposed to a treatment to motivate greater cognitive deliberation tended to reduce voting incentives among those who tended to be less engaged already — young people, women, and citizens with less knowledge. Since the results were disproportionate, the study concluded that if citizens were more thoughtful in weighing political choices, it may not only shrink the electorate but also produce a more biased one.

What do the findings mean for politics? “Campaigns shouldn’t try to emphasize too many things. Find a theme, stick with it, and repeat it, rather than trying to give 47 reasons why voters should choose your candidate,” said Barker.

As people focused more intently on an issue or candidate, discussing it with others and becoming more informed of the options, they felt less certain and were somewhat paralyzed by indecision. Barker found that when voters were encouraged to engage in greater cognitive deliberation, there was less “correct voting” where the ideological consistency between the stated value priorities and candidate preferences.

“I think my results are consistent with the strategy of the Trump administration, which is to throw so much at the public at the same time that they can’t remember anything. The press never covers anything for very long because there is always the latest scandal or outrage de jour. So nothing sticks,” said Barker. “By contrast, the media focused for two years on one story about Hillary Clinton — the emails — and it stayed at the forefront of people’s minds the whole campaign.”

Barker said he thought that considering a full range of criteria before making a decision would make the decision more difficult and cause many people to “throw their hands in the air,” but for those who did make a decision, it would be more consistent with their values and interests. That wasn’t true in the study results, which was surprising to him.

Barker added, “If politicians want to gain public support for a policy and get it passed, they should focus on a limited number of things at a time.”