There is a strong inclination in some quarters to lament the low level of education, or intellectual curiosity, or knowledge among Americans, Millennials, Voters, etc. It is a generic complaint, more subjective than objective and often entails a fair swag of virtue or status signaling.
But there are many interesting questions attached to the trope. Just how much information do you need to have in order to make a good decision? What is your risk tolerance? What are the consequences of the decision? What are the circumstances? What is the cost of additional information gathering? What are your goals? How are those goals prioritized? What are the trade-off sensitivities? And on.
The research by Matsa and Lu sheds a little bit of light in a fashion that forces some interesting questions on the lamenters. Take, for example, the issue about the degree of trust you have in various sources of information.
Ouch. Most people do not have a lot of trust in Local News Media (22%), even less in National News Media (18%) and still less in Family, Friends, Acquaintances (14%). It would have been interesting to see the latter grouping broken out. I suspect that there might be higher numbers for Friends and Family.
Fortunately, there is virtually no trust in Social Media (4%).
Well, if no one trusts information they get from Social Media, Mainstream Media, or from their family and friends, where else are they getting their information that they trust more?
I suspect that these low trust numbers are actually an indicator of general skepticism. People are skeptical of all sources of information. As long as it doesn't slough into jaundice and cynicism, a healthy dose of skepticism is healthy. In fact, we have long been advocating that schools teach critical-thinking. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that critical-thinking in terms of the capacity to create evidence based arguments that have logical integrity has not been much of a success. In fact, there is some evidence that the emptying out of knowledge has also decreased the capacity for critical-thinking.
But this Pew data seems to indicate that an emphasis on critical-thinking might have been effective in lessening everyone's trust in all sources of information.
If there is low trust, then there is low value. If there is low value, then there is not much engagement which is one of the other Pew findings.
While many Americans get news from social media, few are heavily engaged with news.As evidenced by:
Looking at the data this way would seem to reformulate the tropes. If people don't spend much time with news and they don't trust the news and they don't engage with the news all that much, then how do they populate their cognitive landscape in a fashion that allows them to make the decisions that are important to them?
I suspect the answer is that most of the questions that are important to them are radically different from those that the chattering classes want to be important, that direct experience might be a far larger component of decision-making than abstract information, and that values and motivation also play a greater role than data.