Belief–knowledge gap hypothesis

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The belief–knowledge gap hypothesis expands the much-researched knowledge gap hypothesis that was proposed by researchers [1] to explain a lack of influence the media have toward significantly increasing knowledge of members of the public. The original knowledge gap hypothesis proposed that these media effects create knowledge gaps with members of higher social economic status (SES) having the ability for increased knowledge acquisition as compared to lower economic status groups. More than 230 studies ensued and several analyses indicate support.[2] More recently researchers have proposed that other factors may also be influential, namely that ideology may be a more valid predictor of knowledge disparities than SES or education. This shift resulted in the proposal of the belief-knowledge gap hypothesis as discussed by Cecilie Gaziano in 1999. This emerging theory also saw influences from work by D. B. Hindman (2009) regarding belief gap hypothesis. Ensuing studies and the belief-knowledge gap framework model are discussed below.

Historical considerations[edit]

To understand the belief–knowledge theory and how it was created, a review of the premise of which its parent theory knowledge gap theory is needed. Researchers proposed the following as the premise of the original theory: “As the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status [SES] tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease.”[3] The belief–knowledge gap theory builds from the assumption that mass media influence knowledge acquisition but differs in definitions of belief and knowledge and the resulting ways to answer the question of who asserts control over the “definition, creation, and dissemination or suppression of knowledge.”[4] The belief–knowledge gap theory proposes that political ideology is a more apt predictor of how much-debated public issues, especially ones politically driven, influence knowledge gaps. It states, “As the infusion of mass media information into the system increases over time, the relationship between political ideology and politically disputed beliefs tends to strengthen.”[5] This perspective also includes the premise that all knowledge is socially constructed, even those often termed “factual” or scientifically rooted.

Early on, researchers[6] discussed this viewpoint that would later form the basis of the belief–knowledge gap framework model, discussing this critical assumption that all knowledge is a form of belief. Thus, the following became a defining foundation: Because knowledge is socially constructed, knowledge can be considered a belief and beliefs therefore can be considered knowledge. This perspective explains why differing groups can possess the same information but comprehend or believe the knowledge in various ways.

Another assumption of belief–knowledge gap theory that differs from knowledge gap theory, which perceives human action as individual choice and thus not controlled by other’s use of power and influence, is that certain groups do have more power than other groups to propose what is considered knowledge, thus, influence what public issues are highlighted to be perceived as important public issues worthy of consideration.

Theoretical underpinnings[edit]

As mentioned, numerous studies of knowledge gap theory have supported that media influence knowledge acquisition and resulting knowledge gaps. These gaps have been operationalized typically in two ways: One considers the long-term effects, stating that as an issue is highly publicized then knowledge of the topic will increase at a faster rate for the more highly educated or higher SES than those with less education or of lower SES; the second considers point-in-time measures that state a higher correlation between highly publicized issues and increased knowledge levels as compared to less knowledge levels for less publicized issues.

The belief-knowledge gap theory expands this to consider that knowledge inequities can be located within social stratifications, in that groups vary in the ways they convey, control and incorporate information. These differences in what these groups consider knowledge, value systems, norms, and beliefs – their respective culture, in other words – create conflict. Thus, this conflict contributes to differing beliefs and resulting belief gaps.

The differences in approaches to considering knowledge and beliefs gaps resulted in the foundations of the belief-knowledge gap theory, stated as follows: “As the infusion of mass media information into society increases, certain groups will tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than other groups, so that the gap in knowledge between these groups tends to increase because of differences in their social construction of knowledge – that is, their culture.”[7] Therefore, this theory expands to include groups other than SES and education as variables, as well as considers knowledge not to be fixed fact but, rather, a belief of fact.

Empirical support[edit]

The focus of studies on belief–knowledge gap theory has centered around issues politically polarizing. An implied goal in the research is to understand how ideologies differ and thus cause conflict so that social and political processes can be better comprehended. This understanding then can lead to improved dialogue. Hindman (2009) sought to study belief–knowledge gap hypothesis within the context of a vastly changing social climate reflected by increased political conflicts and partisan polarization with the highly publicized and hotly debated issue of global warming. The core questions Hindman considered were whether knowledge gaps persist in increasingly polarized environments and if traditional predictors of knowledge gaps are affected when problems rooted in scientific arenas become politically debated. Two hypotheses were proposed: H1: Political ideology is a better predictor of the distribution of politically disputed beliefs than is education; H2: As the infusion of mass media information into the system increases over time, the relationship between political ideology and politically disputed beliefs tends to strengthen.[8] Using five national telephone surveys, Hindman questioned subjects about beliefs regarding if global warming exists and whether human activity or natural causes were the cause if so. Within demographic questions, Hindman included measures of political affiliations and ideologies. The findings supported that ideology as a dependent variable was significantly associated with beliefs about warming of the earth; yet, both ideology and education were both statistically significant for beliefs related to human activity as a cause. The second hypothesis was weakly supported with ideology as a factor in gaps about whether the earth is warming, but not for the reason. Thus, summarizing, liberal and conservative positions widen the gaps in a belief or not of global warming, but for those of either group believing in global warming, the belief that human activity plays a part was not a belief gap factor.

The belief–knowledge framework[9] reconsiders knowledge gap theory by proposing that changes in technology will cause differing groups to acquire knowledge at varying rates, which will cause continued knowledge gaps, based on differences in their cultures and how their cultures construct knowledge. In a 2013 study, Gaziano used belief-knowledge gap theory to understand how differing social and political groups can vary in personality types, their attitudes, beliefs and values, their reasoning styles, and their perspectives regarding power relations. In applying this framework in a study of the increasing polarization of U.S. citizens based on ideological and partisan lines, Gaziano (2013) considered possible underlying contributors, resulting in interesting observations. Based on additional work by other researchers[10] in which morality is segmented into five psychological foundations, Gaziano (2013) found that liberals and conservatives construct the lens in which they view the world in differing ways. Of the five categories labeled harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity, liberals were found to base their principles on mainly the first two, whereas, conservatives base their principles on all five. In related research,[11] researchers conducted a pilot study using the Disgust Sensitivity Scale (DSS)[12] and a political orientation measure to discover a positively correlated link between disgust sensitivity and people identifying as conservative. Related research studies explored other possible contributors in knowledge acquisition and perceptions.

In a study of the U.S. health care reform bill, Hindman (2012) found that partisanship was a more powerful predictor than education for beliefs in regards to the information about the proposed bill. Some other interesting findings from the study indicated that education was not found as a predictor of knowledge about the bill; rather, age, gender, race, and income were, with younger, non-white, lower-income females more likely to have the belief that health care reform is of value. The study also included other variables to find that overall liberals are more highly educated; yet, highly educated conservatives are more numerous and rank higher in income in comparison. Additionally, more highly educated liberals differ from other groups in distinct ways: they have more years of college, they tend to be younger, they include more non-whites, they enjoy greater employment numbers, they report being less religious, they orient toward more complex problem solving, they serve less often in the military, and they express their opinions more often. Other research explored the role of religiosity in knowledge beliefs, finding overall that self-reporting conservatives are more likely than liberals to question scientific information.[13] Gauchat (2012) also found religiosity to be a factor in distrust of science and noted that other factors could be as important as knowledge and education in predicting acceptance of scientific knowledge, such as political leanings, race, income, and social positions. Research based on two substantial studies of twins from the U.S. and Australia has even supported that genetics, along with environmental factors, can partially account for ideology.[14] A belief-knowledge model was proposed that summarized these research influences.[15]

Related areas for future consideration[edit]

Reference group identification[edit]

The term reference group is a cornerstone concept within the field of sociology.[16] It refers to the idea that individuals frame their own statuses and qualities based on how they perceive the norms and customs of a group.[17] These perceptions serve as a means for individuals to compare themselves to both groups in which they believe to be included and groups in which they may desire to be included.[18] Reference groups can, therefore, be considered as providing a moral template that guides attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Three other related concepts are also important to consider: reference point, and the contrasting terms relative deprivation and relative gratification. Reference point refers to the position in which people perceive themselves to be situated based on their perceptions of those around them,[19] while relative deprivation and relative gratification refer to the belief that one is either suffering from less than others (deprived) or is blessed to have more than others.[20] An important distinction is to be made when considering these terms against the backdrop of society and knowledge gaps. It is the perception of the individual that determines to which group he or she belongs, not the groups that others place the person into that is the social reality for that person. This has important implications for research regarding belief-knowledge gaps because inclusion of the perceptions of group classifications may need to be considered.

Reference groups serve two important functions relative to information inequalities:[21] one, they provide a knowledge base and framework for people to incorporate, and, two, they relay knowledge about expected outcomes if people utilize this framework.[22] For example, if a person is situated into low-SES by traditional means of measuring SES but perceives himself or herself to be relatively gratified then that person may not perceive boundaries for acquiring knowledge and may consider acquiring knowledge as an important component of enacting social change; whereas, someone of higher SES may perceive himself or herself as relatively deprived, resulting in a lack of belief in possessing a power for acquiring and enacting upon knowledge. In a related study, Shehata (2013) considered passive and active learning in regards to knowledge gaps and television use over the course of the 2010 Swedish national election campaign to find a narrowing of knowledge gaps for passive learners. Research that compares the categories in which traditional means of classifying people with categories that people classify themselves into may reveal alternatives to why knowledge gaps exist. In addition to the means in which individuals perceive group statuses, research that considers individual means of knowledge acquisition may indicate potential influential contributors to belief-knowledge gaps.

Consideration of heuristics[edit]

Framing theory refers to both the means in which knowledge is conveyed by the media agent and also how the message is perceived by the receiver. Knowledge gap theory typically tests knowledge acquisition by individuals to aggregate the data into group considerations. Belief-knowledge gap theory is also based in within group aspects: political partisanship and ideologies mainly. Yet, belief-knowledge gap theory recognizes that knowledge is a person’s beliefs within a group. This distinction can lead to additional ways to consider what factors contribute toward belief-knowledge gap disparities. For example, it may be that we can no longer assume that individuals within group categories attend to, acquire, and retain knowledge in ways that represent a collective classification. To reconsider contributors to knowledge gaps, we may need to utilize exploratory measures to consider gaps in research criteria. In addition to perceptions of individuals on their own group classifications, cognitive processing related to learning styles and the role of emotion in using media and acquiring knowledge from such may be important.

When considering the effect of technology on relaying and receiving knowledge and the ability of individuals to be more aware of groups and, therefore, their own reference groups, the role of media use by individuals must also need to be included. While it is beyond the scope of this page to review the vast research on heuristics,[23] a study[24] provides insight into the value the concept can contribute toward research knowledge gaps. To summarize, recognition heuristic relates to the ability of people to infer “value” of one object based on knowledge about another object within a logical category set. For example, if a person unfamiliar with geography of a foreign country is asked to rank the population size of a set of cities within that country, the person may have no knowledge of size but does recognize the names of most of the cities. The person may then rank according to how well he or she recognizes the names. This technique is found to be an extremely effective tool for sorting through and understanding unfamiliar knowledge. Standing (1973) conducted an expansive study in which 10,000 pictures were shown to people with a recall measure two days later. The results demonstrated an astonishing recognition feat of an average of 8,300 of 10,000 as correctly identified, lending support to the notion of people relying on inferences for unfamiliar objects.

A related study analyzed the process people use to judge unknown values or objects, proposing that we often engage in anchoring-and-adjustment heuristics based on relayed information.[25] This has the potential to result in faulty bias depending on the framing of the information. For example, if a person is asked if the U.S. has more or less than 50 million people, the person who does not know the answer may perceive that the actual number is close to the number stated in the question simply based on the framing of the question. One can also compare this anchoring tendency to visual cues. For example, if someone is shown a globe in the manner that the world is often presented and is asked if the U.S. or the continent of Africa is bigger, the person might believe that the two are similar in land mass based simply on the skewed framing of the images. Given that much of the knowledge that is being conveyed on new media relies less on text and more on visual cues, incorporating more testing measures of the same may be important to determine belief-knowledge gaps. Also, these two sample types of heuristic tendencies suggest that modifying research to test knowledge interconnectivity along with knowledge acquisition may discover other knowledge gap contributors based on cognitive connections and schemata. Thus, it shows promise not only to consider what beliefs (knowledge) people hold based on group identifications but also how people incorporate new information into currently existing (anchored) networks that are influence by the collection of group identifications of which a person not only is perceived by others to belong but in which the person also perceives to belong.


The belief–knowledge gap theory shows promise in branching from the well-established knowledge gap theory to consider additional ways that information disparities exist and can be studied. It proposes that in addition to SES and education levels, other factors should be analyzed to consider what may be influential. Not only is this expansion a start in considering how to build on the sound findings related to media use and information gaps but shows promise to spark consideration of what previous research may have omitted.


  1. ^ P. J. Tichenor, G. A. Donohue, and C. N. Olien (1970)
  2. ^ see Gaziano, 1983/1995/1996/2010; Hwang & Jeong, 2010
  3. ^ Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien, often cited as the Minnesota Team, 1970, pp. 159-160
  4. ^ Gaziano, 2013, p. 117
  5. ^ Hindman, 2009, p. 794
  6. ^ Gaziano and Gaziano, 1999
  7. ^ Gaziano & Gaziano, 1999, p. 130
  8. ^ Hindman, 2009, p. 794
  9. ^ Gaziano and Gaziano, 2009
  10. ^ Haidt and Graham, 2007
  11. ^ Inbar, Pizarro, and Bloom, 2009
  12. ^ see Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994
  13. ^ e.g., Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008
  14. ^ Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005
  15. ^ Gaziano, 2013, p. 122
  16. ^ see Hyman, 1942
  17. ^ see Asch, 1951; Deutsch & Gerard 1955; Festinger, 1954; Kelley, 1952
  18. ^ see Merton, 1949
  19. ^ see Merton, 1949
  20. ^ see Olson, Herman, & Zanna, 1986; Stouffer, Suchman, DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949; Thompson & Hickey, 2005
  21. ^ Deutsch and Gerard, 1955
  22. ^ see also, Dambrun & Taylor, 2013; Lindemann, 2007; Merton, 1938; Walker & Smith, 2001
  23. ^ see Duncker, 1945; Simon, 1955
  24. ^ Goldstein and Gigerenzer, 2002
  25. ^ Eply and Gilovich, 2006


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