Low information rationality is a social theory that states that people are information consumers with limited benefits and time for processing and understanding information. Due to the limited benefits and time individuals have for learning new information, individuals use various shortcuts and heuristics to understand information more quickly. Simply put, it does not make sense for the average individual to develop in-depth understandings of most issues. The theory is often used to explain the limited understanding of politics and scientific technologies by the general public.
The concept of low-information rationality is based on the assumption that human beings are cognitive misers and minimize the economic costs of making decisions and forming attitudes. Most citizens will therefore not bother to develop an in-depth understanding of political or scientific issues, which would require significant time and effort. Rather, they collect only as much information as they think is necessary to make any given decision.
The reason this theory comes about in today's age is due to vast increase in amount of information that each of us is exposed to through the internet, smart phones, and TV. Therefore, these patterns of information processing make perfect sense for citizens who have to deal with thousands of pieces of new information every day, and we all use them. We spend less cognitive effort in buying toothpaste than we do when picking a new car. And that difference in information-seeking is largely a function of the costs.
There are a variety of shortcuts individuals use to process information quickly and more efficiently. This does not mean, however, that these methods always lead to accurate and reliable conclusions. Common shortcuts include, stereotypes, opinions of others, interpersonal influences, news frames, heuristics and political ideology.
Samuel Popkin: The Reasoning Voter
American pollster and political scientist Samuel Popkin coined the term "low-information" in 1991 when he used the phrase "low-information signaling" in his book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Popkin relies on a theory of low information rationality to explain how voters are able to make rational choices between candidates. Voters do this by using information shortcuts that they receive during campaigns, usually using something like a "drunkard's search." Voters use small amounts of personal information to construct a narrative about candidates. Essentially, they ask themselves this: "Based on what I know about the candidate personally, what is the probability that this presidential candidate was a good governor? What is the probability that he will be a good president?" Popkin's analysis is based on one main premise: voters use low information rationality gained in their daily lives, through the media and through personal interactions, to evaluate candidates and facilitate electoral choices.
The science literacy/knowledge deficit model states that the public is willing and able to process information if it is available. Therefore, a lack of public support or participation is caused by a lack of information available to the public.
Problems for science
As mentioned above, scientists who use the knowledge deficit model face great difficulty conveying information to the lay public when overwhelming amount of psychology and political science studies show that the public uses the low information rationality model. Some examples of this are in the cutting-edge sciences of nanotechnology and biotechnology.
For issues such as agricultural biotechnology, for example, where developing an in-depth understanding would require significant efforts on the part of ordinary citizens, the pay-offs in terms of being able to make informed policy judgments may simply not be enough. As a result, it makes perfect sense for citizens to rely on shortcuts such as opinions of others when forming their own opinions and trying to make sense of different policy positions.
- Scheufele, Dietram. "3 MESSAGES AND HEURISTICS: HOW AUDIENCES FORM ATTITUDES ABOUT EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES" (PDF). Engaging Science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
- Popkin, Samuel (1991). The Reasoning Voter. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226675440.
- Brossard, D.; Shanahan, J.; Nesbitt, T.C. (2007). The Public, the Media, and Biotechnology. UK: CABI. p. 231. ISBN 978-1-84593-204-6.