New Surveys Show the Persistence of Misperceptions

While there are ways to present information more effectively, the extensive social science research we review in our New America report suggests that misperceptions are very difficult to counter.
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Three new surveys illustrate just how persistent political misperceptions can be.

My research with Jason Reifler suggests that corrective information frequently fails to reduce beliefs in false or unsupported claims -- a response that may be rooted in the threatening nature of unwelcome facts. While there are ways to present information more effectively, the extensive social science research we review in our New America report suggests that misperceptions are very difficult to counter.

These polls illustrate the challenge. First, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a new survey showing that 16 percent of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim and additional 36 percent don't know his religion. Plotting the history of Pew surveys on this question, which date back to March 2008, shows that the misperception is disturbingly stable:

Of course, it's possible that some of these respondents are expressing their dislike of Obama rather than a sincere factual belief, but others may refrain from expressing support for the Muslim claim to a survey interviewer -- an effect that Reifler and I found may be substantial for white respondents who received corrective information with a non-white administrator present. The relative magnitude of these effects is unclear.

(Pew also found that only 51 percent of Americans know Mitt Romney is Mormon and 37 percent don't know his religion, but there is no clear misperception -- no more than 5 percent selected any of the other faiths provided in the question.)

Second, MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky, who is now conducting research on misperceptions, commissioned a YouGov poll earlier this month tracking support for the false claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. Initial polls, including those conducted by Berinsky, suggested misperceptions declined substantially after the release of Obama's long-form birth certificate in April 2011, but he found that most of the decline had dissipated by January 2012. In his latest poll, Berinsky finds that birther beliefs are now higher than before the document's release. The graphs below plot his results from immediately before and after the release of the document, January 2012, and July 2012 for all respondents and Republicans:

Finally, my Dartmouth Government department colleague Ben Valentino recently coordinated a YouGov survey on U.S. foreign policy supported by the Tobin Project that included two questions on highly persistent misperceptions -- the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003 (one of the topics of my first article with Reifler) and the birther myth.

Harris polls from 2003-2006 show that the WMD myth bottomed out just under 40 percent before a bump upward in mid-2006 that may have been the result of bogus hype about the discovery of degraded chemical weapons from the 1980s. Valentino found that 32 percent continued to endorse those claims now. While this estimate represents a decline from the 2005-2006 period, it's a relatively modest one, especially considering the time that has elapsed since then and the increased unpopularity of the war in Iraq and President Bush since 2006. Since Valentino used nearly identical wording to Harris, I've plotted his results along with theirs using a flexible polynomial fit:

As we would expect, the results are strikingly different by partisanship, so I've also disaggregated his survey results by party (leaners are not included in the Democratic and Republican totals in this or the subsequent graph):

63 percent of Republicans believe Iraq had WMD compared with only 27 percent of independents/other and 15 percent of Democrats.

For the birther question, Valentino sought to probe self-reported belief change by asking respondents to indicate not just their current belief but whether their views about Obama's place of birth had changed. In all, he found that 26 percent selected "I have always believed President Obama was born in another country" and an additional 6 percent selected "I used to think President Obama was born in the United States, but now I think he was born in another country." Here is a bar chart broken out by party with responses grouped by the respondent's current beliefs:

Only 22 percent of Republicans said they believe Obama was born in this country, compared with 41 percent of independents/other and 79 percent of Democrats. By contrast, a shocking 63 percent of Republicans indicated they now believe Obama was not born in the U.S. -- a much higher estimate than Berinsky's data (presumably a result of differences in question wording). Again, even if some of these responses do not reflect sincere belief, there is no denying the resilience of misperceptions against even the strongest and most concrete documentary evidence.

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