People Who Are Most Confident About Politics Actually Understand The LEAST, According To A New Study

According to the study, the 'rationally ignorant' fail to overcome their ignorance because they are simply unaware of it, becoming 'increasingly hardened' to the possibility they are uninformed. Phakimata/Shutterstock 

Ever wonder why it’s so difficult to argue with that agitating distant relative or high school classmate who posts political – albeit inaccurate – memes across social media? It could be they are simply ignorant of their own ignorance.

People who know less about politics are more confident that they know more and, when partisan identities are thrown into the mix, the effect is intensified, according to a new study published in Political Psychology

The study, which tested both a person’s political intellect as well as how their partisanship affected it, analyzed how successfully a person was able to answer questions about political issues. Respondents were then asked to assess how accurate they believed their answers to be. On average, people with low scores on political knowledge “substantially” overestimated their performance. Political partisanship also exacerbated the gap between perceived and actual knowledge, affecting those who performed poorer more.

The results are explained using the Dunning-Kruger effect, which holds that individuals with low levels of competence will judge themselves to be more competent than they really are, while people who are highly competent underestimate their excellence. Because people vary in their ability to acknowledge the things they don’t know (“known unknowns”) versus things they might not even know exist (“unknown unknowns”), the theory holds that “low achievers” aren’t able to overcome their incompetence because they don’t know they know less. The only cure, if you will, is to increase one’s awareness and understanding.

This “ignorance of ignorance” also causes people to raise “perceptual screens”, indiscriminately believing notions bolstered in political parties while disbelieving ideas that discredit them. 

“Overconfident citizens may become emboldened, making strong political assertions in their social networks and resisting persuasive counterarguments,” says the study. Republicans, according to the team, use partisan cues to judge peers' political knowledge more than Democrats – a concept called "asymetric polarization" – which aligns with research that suggests the red party has become more committed to ideologues in recent years than their blue counterpart. 

It's led some to call the 45th US president the “Dunning-Kruger President”. 

“I became increasingly interested in the Dunning-Kruger effect after observing other scholars discuss the subject on Twitter in the run-up to the 2016 election," study author Ian Anson told PsyPost. "I follow a number of political psychologists who marveled at the social media pundit class’ seeming display of ‘Dunning-Krugerish tendencies’ in their bombastic coverage of the election.”

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Shortcomings include those that come with many online survey experiments, including the opportunity to cheat and find answers online. The authors also question whether their survey, which analyzed the responses of 2,206 Americans, was the most accurate predictor of political knowledge.

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