Creating better citizens means winning at least three battles
"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."
Galbraith's Law of Human Nature
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Polls and surveys suggest that the "average" U.S. citizen is woefully uninformed about a wide range of important issues. But many campaigns to increase civic competence are doomed to fail since they fall prey to what a University of Michigan researcher calls the "Field of Dreams" fallacy—the assumption that simply giving people the right information will automatically improve their ability to make informed decisions.
"We can't help but ignore almost all the information that's presented to us," said U-M political scientist Arthur Lupia, who is speaking at a symposium "The Mind, the Brain, and the New Science of Politics," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC on February 18.
A research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), Lupia draws from cognitive neuroscience, psychology, communications and politics to show how basic scientific principles can improve efforts to inform and educate voters.
"Philosophers, civic leaders, and scientists alike recognize the importance of a competent citizenry in a properly functioning democracy, said Lupia, co-author of "The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know?" "But success in increasing civic competence requires winning at least three battles."
The Battle for Attention and Working Memory
Many scientific studies have shown that the physical limits of working memory are severe. "At any moment, of all the stimuli to which you could attend, you must ignore all but about six or seven," Lupia said. The competition for attention is fierce, and if the provider is seen to have conflicting interests or no expertise, the information will be ignored.
"There's a big difference between wanting someone's sustained attention and getting it," Lupia said. "And even if a person does attend to us at a given moment, they are constantly confronted with streams of new stimuli. Therefore, even when we achieve a momentary victory of attention, the battle for a parking spot in Working Memory rages on."
The Battle for Elaboration and Long-Term Memory
What we want people to remember, what we think they should remember and what they actually remember are very different, Lupia said. For example, more people know who said "Hi yo Silver" than who said "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Plans to increase civic competence will be more effective if they're based on knowing what kinds of techniques help people to retain information in long-term memory.
Several lines of research show that when people take time to contemplate what a speaker says, when they elaborate and generate internal counter-arguments, new ideas are more likely to survive in long-term memory.
The Battle at the Precipice of Choice
If new information contradicts prior experience, it's less likely to be accepted, Lupia points out. When given a choice between ways of acting with which one is familiar and a new way, unless the new way is seen as clearly superior, many researchers find that it is common to stick with the tried and true. "The persistence of status quo biases in making decisions is just one force that makes this battle more difficult to win than is commonly appreciated," Lupia said.
"Addressing these battles by paying more attention to basic scientific principles can help people who want to increase civic competence use the generosity of donors and the hard work of well-intentioned citizens more effectively," Lupia said.
Contact: Diane Swanbrow