Everybody knows that we have two Americas: Red state/blue state, Republican/Democrat, etc. If you look at the polls, it’s not just that we don’t share the same opinions. We seem hopelessly divided even on the facts.
Or are we?
Researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research decided to test if respondents answer poll questions truthfully. They wanted to see if there were reasons, other than belief, that a 2010 Harris Interactive poll found that 45 percent of Republicans said President Obama was born overseas, while only 8 percent of Democrats did. Likewise, a 1988 poll had shown that Democrats were more likely to say unemployment and inflation had risen during the Reagan administration, when both actually had decreased.
In other words, when asked a poll question, do we really believe what we’re saying, or do we just lead cheers for our team? The researchers tried to answer this question by using the one tool that all Americans, Republican and Democrat, agree works effectively: Money.
In 2008, researchers asked two groups of participants factual questions about politics with clear and definite answers. Potential answers might seem to favor either the Democrats or the Republicans, such as the number of American service personnel killed in Iraq or whether the unemployment rate had increased during President Bush’s administration. One of the two groups was given a financial incentive to answer the questions correctly — a chance to win a drawing for a $200 Amazon.com certificate, with the odds improving with each correct answer.
You can probably guess the results. When there was no incentive, Republicans and Democrats tended to give different answers that favored their party. When money was involved, using the survey’s methodologies, the gap between their answers shrunk by 55 percent.
The results were similar in a second experiment in 2012 that asked factual questions about Bush, Obama and other topics. In addition, some respondents were given a financial incentive to answer "don’t know." Among that group, the gap between Republicans and Democrats shrunk by 80 percent.
According to the researchers, "don’t know" was a popular choice even though the reward was smaller than for getting the answer correct, which is not really surprising. When it comes to politics, we don’t really know what we’re talking about a lot of the time. It just takes the proper incentives for us to admit it.
The researchers emphasized that more study is needed on the subject, which would be a good thing, because polls are a terrible way to run a democracy. So much of the results depend on who’s asking the questions and how they ask them.
Also worth examining is this: Most people contacted for a poll decline to participate, so who is answering the questions? Probably not the working mother trying to fix dinner; more likely a hard-core Republican or Democrat ready to speak his mind.
For policymakers, the implications of this research should be clear: Use polls only as a guide. A good politician can read his constituents as well as he can read poll numbers.
For the rest of us, maybe this could serve as a reminder about the way we ought to talk about politics. For very small financial incentives, research participants were much more honest about what they knew and what they didn’t know, and the gap between Democrats and Republicans became a lot smaller. Put them in the same room at that moment, and they might even have had a civil conversation.
In real life, we don’t get paid for telling the truth. But the truth is its own reward, right?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.