Date of Award

2017

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Communication

First Advisor

Michael X. Delli Carpini

Abstract

There is widespread skepticism about civic competence. Some question if citizens are informed enough to make considered decisions. Others doubt citizens’ ability to rationally evaluate relevant evidence and update their opinions even when they have necessary information. The purpose of my dissertation is to critically evaluate this literature and its claims against a clearly defined normative benchmark of considered opinion.

In the first half of the dissertation, I revisit the benchmark of informed citizenship, arguing that seemingly knowledgeable citizens, as traditionally defined, may fail to consider a balanced range of arguments due to partisan biases. Accordingly, I draw a distinction between two dimensions of political knowledge; information—the classic definition and measurement; and what I call consideration—awareness of balanced sets of arguments. I empirically establish the discriminant validity of consideration as a separate and distinct dimension of political knowledge, and show that information and consideration have different consequences on policy opinions—a finding that calls for a better conceptualization of what it means to be well informed.

The importance of having political information ultimately hinges on a critical assumption that people are capable of using it effectively. In the second half, I test this assumption against even grimmer doubts over civic competence—namely that citizens lack the ability to think critically or that their conscious or unconscious desire to defend preordained political positions easily trumps the motivation to be accurate. I present three experiments that challenge these claims, in favor of a Bayesian model of information processing. Across the experiments, I find that people update their beliefs and attitudes in light of presented arguments. People did not mindlessly accept whatever arguments they encounter, nor did they categorically reject uncongenial arguments. Instead, they accounted for the (un)certainty of evidence as they form their posterior opinions, even when it disconfirms their prior opinions.

Taken together, the empirical evidence presented in this dissertation suggests that citizens’ failure to act as competent decision makers is more likely due to the lack of necessary and balanced information, rather than their own unwillingness or inability to use such information.

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