Finding new ways to evaluate voters’ beliefs

In his dissertation research, joint communication and political science doctoral student Nicholas Dias searches for new ways to gauge voter competency.

In high school, Nicholas Dias was fascinated by the fact that some information persuades voters to change their political beliefs, while other information doesn’t. So he joined the debate team.

Hoping to provide voters with useful facts that would inform their beliefs, Dias attended Columbia Journalism School. During his time in New York, he found that informing voters wasn’t as interesting to him as understanding how voters process information.

Nicholas Dias.
Nicholas Dias is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. (Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication)

“I realized that in order to answer the questions that I was interested in,” says Dias, “I needed to collect my own data.”

Now Dias satiates his curiosity through research—exploring the dynamics underlying Americans’ political beliefs—as a joint doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science at Penn.

He came to Annenberg in part because scholars were already looking into the questions he was drawn to—why people change their minds about issues, what makes people resistant to accepting some facts, and what role partisan polarization plays in preventing people from persuading one another.

As a researcher, Dias has been working with his advisors—associate professor of communication Yphtach Lelkes and Matthew Levendusky in the Department of Political Science—to study partisan polarization. His newer work tries to find better and fairer ways to gauge whether voters are sufficiently informed to make competent decisions when they step into the polling booth.

“Currently, as political scientists, we often use quizzes that ask political knowledge questions like, ‘What party controls the House of Representatives?’ to compute how good their democratic decisions are, how well they're voting, how effectively they're identifying public policies that are consistent with their interests and priorities,” Dias says, “They’re useful, but they force people to conform to a very particular set of expectations about what they should know.”

He and Lelkes have been testing an alternate method of gauging voter knowledge—self-assessments.

“We simply ask people to evaluate themselves in terms of how well they understand particular issues,” Dias says, “rather than inferring what they might know about abortion based on whether they know how many Supreme Court justices there are.”

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.