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Political Psychology - Public Political Attitudes Assignment

This page authored by Greg Marfleet based on an original activity conducted in his class POSC 226 Political Psychology at Carleton College (2009)
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This assignments asks students to wrestle with "Pluralistic Ignorance"--the propensity of members of the public to misperceive the majority position and attitudes of their fellow citizens on important topics. The "False Consensus Effect," for example, is an attribution pattern that suggests that individuals tend to perceive their own behavior as typical and over-estimate the degree to which others share their beliefs or would make similar decisions. Prior to the assignment, students in the class have been surveyed about their own positions on several current issues. The survey also prompted students to estimate the proportion of the public that shared your views. The writing assignment presented here invites students to analyze the degree to which students in the class manifested the False Consensus Effect by comparing their estimates to existing data generated by national surveys.

Learning Goals

The purpose of the assignment is to have students explore a common social cognitive error that can result in misperceptions of popular political attitudes. In order to conduct this exercise students will also have to visit the Inter-University Consortium for Political And Social Research (ICPSR) website, become familiar with the range of data available there, locate one key dataset and use the on-line analysis system to run descriptive statistical analysis of the responses to several survey questions. These results will provide them with valuable numerical information used to evaluate the accuracy of their own estimates (collected earlier) and make them more aware of the actual distribution of public attitudes on these issues.

Context for Use

This exercise was conducted in a lower division course (200 level) where the students were not expected to have taken statistics or methods. The assignment is largely a write-up component of a computer-lab data session held about the middle of the term. Earlier in the term, students were asked to participate in an in-class survey where they indicated their own responses to several questions presented in the National Election Study survey and also estimated what proportion of the US population shared this view.

Description and Teaching Materials

As preparation for the activity we read the article indicated in the description: Shamir and Shamir ( 1997) "Pluralistic Ignorance Across Issues and Over Time: Information Cues and Biases." The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2. This is available via the J-Stor on-line journal database. The article uses some basic statistics (measures of central tendency and correlation) which we discussed in class.
The lab work involved access to the ICPSR data archive:
Students also consulted the American National Election Study Website: for more details on the surveys, question wording etc.
A third file was a spreadsheet containing the results of the in-class survey which I have not made available here.
Assignment Handout (Microsoft Word 28kB Feb13 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

An introduction to the ICPSR SDA on-line analysis system was required. This was conducted in the lab as a class exercise. Most students are familiar enough with basic statistical concepts such as frequency and median or mean scores that no extensive statistical training was needed. To ensure this wouldn't be a problem students worked in pairs.
For some discussion of the SDA system is here:


Students were asked to produce a write-up paper. Assessment of learning goals success in this instance was measured by the degree to which their findings were correct. This could only be accomplished if the students navigated the on-line system and properly incorporated the data into the spreadsheet for analysis.

References and Resources

Key resources:

For some discussion of the SDA system: