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Don't Read All About It!!

You want to buy a house. You open the local real-estate listings and see a bolded phrase beneath the picture of a house: it reads YOUR DREAM HOME! Nearby are other pictures of other houses each with its own little headline: A SPECTACULAR BUY!, THE PERFECT STARTER HOME!, A MUST-OWN!!, etc.

If one of these little ‘headlines’ and the accompanying picture capture your eye, you might read further about the house – discovering, say, that it has three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a newly built garage, and sits on one acre of land. Sounds pretty much like what you want! And the price listed with this information might be just what you’re thinking of paying for your new home.

But you are unlikely then to call the real-estate agent and say “Hey, I read that ad about the house at 123 Elm St. It’s just what I want! I’ll take it.” Because buying a house is such a significant investment, you’ll spend time actually visiting the house, looking it over, talking to its current owner, and paying for an expert to do a professional inspection before you commit to buying. Gathering this extra information – this information ‘beyond the headlines,’ so to speak – is rational, sensible, smart.

Political decisions aren’t made with such care, even though the actions of politicians can have enormous effects on our lives. Economists say that voters are “rationally ignorant” – because no one voter reasonably expects to determine the outcome of an election, no voter spends his valuable time learning much detail about the facts and issues relevant in the election. (Compare a voter to a home buyer: the outcome of the election will be what it is regardless of how any one person votes, but the home buyer will buy the house if and only if he personally chooses to buy the house.)

Rational ignorance explains part of the reason why newspaper headlines might be inordinately important in elections. Headlines are easy to read; people scan them in a matter of seconds, learning what is supposed to be the gist of the accompanying stories. Because of rational ignorance, I suspect that a disproportionate amount of information (and misinformation) about the issues and about different candidates is spread through headlines – and headlines only. Why take the much greater time to read the full story if the headline conveys its essence?

If headlines do play a disproportionately significant role in shaping people’s perceptions about current events and about candidates, then the research findings of Kevin Hassett and John Lott (both of the American Enterprise Institute) are disturbing. Hassett and Lott summarize their findings in this op-ed that appears in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thanks to Jack Wenders for pointing out this Hassett-Lott op-ed.