Knowledge Persists, Opinions Drift: Learning and Opinion Change in a Three-Wave Panel Experiment

Date01 March 2020
Published date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 263 –274
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19832543
In general, theories of representative democracy demand that
citizens bring at least a modicum of knowledge about public
affairs to their political decisions (e.g., Dahl, 1989). Decades
of public opinion research, however, highlight a clear problem
for normative theory: The public often simply does not know
the facts about political topics (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996)
or even has inaccurate factual beliefs; that is, people may
believe things to be true that are actually false (Kuklinski,
Quirk, Jerit, Schwieder, & Rich, 2000; Kuklinski, Quirk,
Schwieder, & Rich, 1998; Kull, Ramsay, & Lewis, 2003;
Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). There is considerable evidence that
being uninformed or misinformed about specific policy topics
matters for opinions on those topics. For example, experimen-
tal studies show that accurate information shapes opposition to
foreign aid and support for prison spending (Gilens, 2001),
attitudes toward immigrants (Barabas & Jerit, 2010), support
for teacher pay raises (Schueler & West, 2016), and support
for the estate tax (Sides, 2016). Observational studies similarly
show that the belief that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) estab-
lished “death panels” correlates with opposition to the law
(Pasek, Sood, & Krosnick, 2015), lack of knowledge about the
2001 federal income tax cuts inflated their support (Bartels,
2008), and beliefs about which demographic groups make up
the largest share of welfare beneficiaries correlate with atti-
tudes toward these programs (Gilens, 1999). In short, people
with accurate factual beliefs about policy often demonstrate a
willingness to make different choices than those who have
inaccurate (or no) factual beliefs about a given topic.
Scholarly attention has increasingly focused on whether
providing accurate policy information causes individuals to
update their factual beliefs and opinions about the topic.
However, this research has mostly focused on immediate
effects (e.g., Garrett, Nisbet, & Lynch, 2013; Gilens, 2001;
Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Kuklinski et al., 2000; Nyhan & Reifler,
2010; Schueler & West, 2016; Sides, 2016; Thorson, 2016;
Wood & Porter, 2018). Much less is known about whether the
provision of information—in particular, factual information
related to policy matters—can lead to enduring effects. For
exposure to information designed to educate individuals
about public policies to “work,” the effects should persist
over a period of time. An emerging literature (e.g., Berinsky,
2017; Swire, Berinsky, Lewandowsky, & Ecker, 2017) has
examined the persistence of informational effects on factual
beliefs, but few previous studies have considered whether
information affects factual beliefs and opinion differently,
especially over a period of time extending several weeks
beyond treatment. It is therefore imperative to further explore
the linkages between information, factual beliefs, and opinion
832543APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19832543American Politics ResearchDowling et al.
1The University of Mississippi, University, MS, USA
2Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
3Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael Henderson, Louisiana State University, Journalism Building, Baton
Rouge, LA 70803, USA.
Knowledge Persists, Opinions Drift:
Learning and Opinion Change in a
Three-Wave Panel Experiment
Conor M. Dowling1, Michael Henderson2,
and Michael G. Miller3
Considerable evidence exists that Americans possess not only low levels of political knowledge but also relatively uninformed—
and sometimes misinformed—opinions on policy matters. Many recent studies focus on whether informational treatments have
immediate effects on citizens’ factual beliefs and opinions about policy, but less is known about whether such treatments have
enduring effects. Using a three-wave panel experiment, we assess the immediate and enduring effects of factual information
provision on factual beliefs and opinion of the Affordable Care Act. We find a relatively persistent effect of information
provision on accuracy of factual beliefs, but only an ephemeral shift in opinion, which typically drifts back to its pretreatment
state within a few weeks. Our findings have implications for the understanding of citizen learning and opinion change, as well as
ongoing scholarly debates about how long-lasting the effects of (experimental) interventions are.
political knowledge, public opinion, survey experiment, learning, opinion change

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