Such results might lead us to be more optimistic about the problem of political ignorance. Perhaps the voters know more than traditional surveys suggest. But any such optimism must be tempered by the realization that voters do not get paid for accurate factual assessments when they go to the polls.
Although they acknowledge the possibility that “incentives may reduce partisan gaps by causing
respondents to think more carefully about correct answers,” the authors instead emphasize the more optimistic possibility that many people are simply “insincere” when they give inaccurate, biased answers on conventional surveys. They know the truth, but deliberately lie in order to “cheerlead” for their favorite political “team.”
But such deception makes little sense. There is little point to lying about factual issues on an anonymous survey in order to support your party. Indeed, doing so might well harm your party’s interests rather than benefit it. The predictable effect of giving inaccurate, biased answers to survey questions is not to help your party, but to make you and its other supporters seem ignorant and stupid. Consider the reaction to the recent survey about bombing the fictional nation of Agrabah, and how it made Republicans look bad. People smart and sophisticated enough to deliberately lie for the purpose of supporting their party are unlikely to ignore this fairly obvious point. After all, if you know the correct answer, you will likely recognize that the people who sponsored the survey probably do so as well. You are unlikely to fool them. Thus, it is far more likely that financial incentives actually increase knowledge (e.g. – by leading respondents to recall information they had forgotten) and diminish bias, than that they eliminate “insincere” responses intended to “cheerlead” for a party.
The authors suggest that the “insincerity” of many respondents is shown by the fact that a higher percentage admit ignorance on surveys where they are paid more for a “don’t know” response than for a wrong one (but less than for getting the correct answer). But this could easily be the result of thinking harder about what they know and don’t know (and with what degree of certainty) when money is on the line. Moreover, some risk-averse respondents might prefer a certain (though smaller) payoff for picking the “don’t know” option, than a larger, but less certain, one for picking what they think is the correct answer, but still have some doubts about.
The effectiveness of incentives in increasing knowledge and reducing bias also suggests that we should consider making more decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. When we decide what products to buy in the market, or choose which jurisdiction to live in a federal system, we usually try much harder to to acquire relevant information and evaluate it wisely than when we vote in any election. It is no accident that most people devote a lot more time and effort to figuring out which car or TV to buy, than to deciding who to vote for in a presidential election. We know that the former decision will make a real difference, while the latter has only a tiny chance of doing so.