When Bad News is Good News: Information Acquisition in Times of Economic Crisis

Abstract

A strong argument can be made for the prime importance of information in the context of an economic recession. It is in times of crisis that information on the state of the economy is abundant and citizens have incentives to acquire it in order to sanction incumbents for mismanagement of the economy. Simultaneously, however, economic hardship strains people’s cognitive resources and motivations to seek relevant information. Using a novel research design, we assess how the recent economic recession has shaped information acquisition. Our results indicate that while personal economic hardship depresses levels of information, the recession overall boosted considerably the public’s knowledge of the state of the economy and, to a lesser degree, of parties’ policy positions in elections. For both economic and electoral types of information, economically marginal groups caught up to the economically secure in contexts of economic hardship, thereby reducing information inequalities. We discuss the findings’ implications for representative democracy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For a list of countries included, see the Appendix.

  2. 2.

    In the case of the 2009 EB, 51 percent did not answer the question on economic growth, 46 percent did not answer the question on inflation, and 35 percent did not answer the question on unemployment. In 2015, those numbers were 33 percent, 33 percent and 21 percent, respectively. In 2007, those numbers were 65 percent, 56 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Below we describe several robustness checks related to the large number of missing values.

  3. 3.

    In the 2015 wave of the Eurobarometer, several countries surpassed the 20% threshold.

  4. 4.

    A response is considered correct if unemployment is under 5% and the respondent declares a figure also below 5%; likewise we define the following intervals: 5–8%; 8–10%; 10–15%; 15–20%; 20–25%; and 25–30%. We test the robustness of the results to an alternative set of operationalizations where correct response is anywhere within 2% or within 3% of the correct figure (see Appendix).

  5. 5.

    We adopt a minimalist approach to operationalizing personal economic hardship in order to keep the analyses of economic and electoral information comparable.

  6. 6.

    We do not find a statistically significant interaction effect between age and unemployment status.

  7. 7.

    Coding information on each variable may be found in the Appendix. In the Appendix we also control for respondents’ prior occupation in the case of being unemployed.

  8. 8.

    For example, we exclude two studies fielded in Greece (2009, 2012) as no study was available prior to the start of the recession in 2008. For a list of election studies, see the Appendix.

  9. 9.

    Expert placements of party positions rely on the judgments of the CSES collaborators. The CSES did not provide information on the number of national experts surveyed in each election; this information was available only for some elections (e.g., N = 11 in Austria-2013). Expert placements are preferable to average voter placements due to potential endogeneity concerns (e.g., individuals’ placements may be affected by the severity of the crisis) as well as errors when voters place small parties (e.g., the UK election in 2015, as detailed in the CSES notes).

  10. 10.

    We also control for vote for the incumbent (see Appendix).

  11. 11.

    Baseline levels of information account for subsequent levels of electoral information acquisition much better than they do for levels of macroeconomic information. We believe this is due to the relative stability of most parties’ policy positions over electoral cycles. In contrast, macroeconomic trends can vary considerably over time.

  12. 12.

    Baseline models suggested a number of potential outliers at the country level; our results are robust to the exclusion of these cases from the models (see Appendix).

  13. 13.

    As a norm, we do not observe over-reporting in cases of high unemployment. In the ten cases with highest level of unemployment in the dataset, only three registered over-reporting above average. Compare this to the ten cases with lowest unemployment in the sample, where five registered over-reporting above average.

  14. 14.

    We impute missing values based on individuals’ perceptions of economic performance (both unemployment and general economic situation), trust in official statistics, demographic variables and fixed effects for country and survey year. To avoid endogeneity, we did not include any of the main explanatory variables as predictors. N = 48,595. See Appendix for full results.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Tim Hellwig, Enrique Hernández, Jordi Muñoz, Paul Marx and the three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. We also thank the participants at the workshops “Inequalities in Political Knowledge” at the ECPR Joint Sessions in Salamanca, ‘Political knowledge and information processing’ at the University of Vienna and the CSES conference ‘Representation and Participation around the World’ in Taipei, for their helpful remarks on earlier versions of this paper. Replication materials can be found at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/HH369O.

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Correspondence to Dani M. Marinova.

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Marinova, D.M., Anduiza, E. When Bad News is Good News: Information Acquisition in Times of Economic Crisis. Polit Behav 42, 465–486 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9503-3

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Keywords

  • Electoral information
  • Economic information
  • Gaps in political knowledge
  • Economic crisis
  • Economic voting