Does Expert Opinion Matter to Politicians? It Does, Even When It Goes Against Their Preferences

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dara Gaines, covers the new article by Nathan Lee, Rochester Institute of Technology: “Do Policy Makers Listen to Experts? Evidence from a National Survey of Local and State Policy Makers”.

It is a common belief that policy makers only listen to experts when they support their own views. Consider the multitude of factors that shape policy makers’ opinions such as fact-based counsel, partisan messaging, and even personal bias. Do politicians ever change their positions when presented with the opinions of experts? In his new article in the American Political Science Review Nathan Lee finds that politicians listen to and incorporate expert opinions, even when those opinions go against their prior preferences.

Lee’s multi-part experimental design uses a national survey of local and state policy makers in the United States to test whether policy makers are motivated more by partisanship or accuracy when presented with expert opinions. Policy makers “update” when they encounter new information and shift their position on an issue. One pattern of decision making, directional-motivated reasoning, assumes that policy makers are less likely to change their mind when information does not match their current opinion. Instead, they shape the information to fit their prior beliefs. Alternatively, accuracy-motivated reasoning suggests that politicians are likely to evaluate and incorporate new information in their decision making because they are morally inclined and know they will be held accountable by voters and the media. Lee teases apart these motivations by presenting the opinions of experts across three different policy debates concerning needle exchanges, GMO safety, and rent control. Experts generally agree on the most effective solutions to these issues. At the same time, the chosen policies appeal to some partisans more than others. By providing an array of policy opinions, Lee gave policy makers an opportunity to account for their partisan preferences and expert opinions, which might not always align.

“Together, these results demonstrate the potential for expert opinion to overcome the partisan and personal biases of policy makers.” Policy makers received a brief summary of the policy debates surrounding needle exchanges, GMO safety, and rent control. Some participants were randomly assigned to then receive an additional summary about the views of the expert community. Afterward, each respondent was asked their own position on the policy debate. Policy makers then shared the level of consensus they believed to be held by subject matter experts.

Lee finds that respondents who read the expert summary were more likely to prefer a position similar to the expert community. Importantly, this effect held even when the information went against the typical view of those affiliated with the respondent’s party. In a second part of the experiment, Lee goes on to present the same information about expert opinion to respondents who originally didn’t receive that information and then asks the respondents their own positions again. Notably, those who initially agreed “least” actually update their preferences the most.

Together, these results demonstrate the potential for expert opinion to overcome the partisan and personal biases of policy makers.  While there are many factors that contribute to a politician’s final decision about a policy, Lee’s study shows that policy makers do care about accuracy and expertise. Future work should leverage these results to understand the potential for effective communication that can cut through partisan bias and misinformation.