Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Individual Differences in Current Events Knowledge: Contributions of Ability, Personality, and Interests

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Individual Differences in Current Events Knowledge: Contributions of Ability, Personality, and Interests

Article excerpt

What accounts for individual differences in the sort of knowledge that people may draw on in everyday cognitive tasks, such as deciding whom to vote for in a presidential election, how to invest money in the stock market, or what team to bet on in a friendly wager? In a large sample of undergraduate students, we investigated correlates of individual differences in recently acquired knowledge of current events in domains such as politics, business, and sports. Structural equation modeling revealed two predictive pathways: one involving cognitive ability factors and the other involving two major nonability factors (personality and interests). The results of this study add to what is known about the sources of individual differences in knowledge and are interpreted in the context of theoretical conceptions of adult intelligence that emphasize the centrality and importance of knowledge (e.g., Ackerman, 1996; Cattell, 1971).

The basic idea of the knowledge-is-pawer hypothesis is that what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful cognitive performance in real-world environments such as the classroom and the workplace is simply what people know. That is, individual differences in acquired knowledge translate into individual differences in a variety of complex tasks-problem solving, decision making, language comprehension, complex learning, and so on (e.g., Minsky & Papert, 1974). This hypothesis is supported by a wealth of evidence. For example, comparisons of novices and experts in domain-relevant tasks, such as choosing a move in a chess game or playing a hand in a bridge game, have yielded massive effect sizes-among the largest consistently observed m the behavioral sciences (see Ericsson, 1996, for a review). The importance of knowledge in fundamental, everyday tasks such as reading (e.g., Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, & Voss, 1979) and writing (e.g., Kellogg, 2001) has been amply demonstrated as well. In light of such evidence, there has been much emphasis in recent years on the importance of acquired knowledge as a central component of intelligence (e.g., Ackerman, 1996; Ceci, 1996). For example, Schank and Birnbaum (1994) proposed the following: "The bottom Une is that intelligence is a function of knowledge. One may have the potentiality of intelligence, but without knowledge, nothing will become of that intelligence" (p. 102).

Why, then, do some people know more than others? What are the characteristics of individuals that drive differences in acquiring and retaining information? In the present study, this question is considered in the context of current events knowledge-the sort of world knowledge that people may draw on in everyday tasks, such as deciding whom to vote for in a presidential election, how to invest in the stock market, or what team to bet on in a friendly wager. Today, news information is more accessible than ever. For example, on most college campuses, students have free access to the Internet and can catch up on the news of the day in a few mouse clicks. Why, then, do some people know more about current events than others? Obviously, being exposed to information about a topic is a prerequisite for acquiring knowledge of that topic. For example, to learn about politics, a person must either be passively exposed to such information or actively engage in such activities as reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching television. Thus, individual differences in exposure to media might be expected to account for a significant proportion of individual differences hi current events knowledge. Consistent with this speculation, Stanovich and colleagues found that exposure to print accounted for a large proportion of the variance in cultural knowledge, above and beyond cognitive ability (e.g., Stanovich & Cunningham, 1992, 1993; West, Stanovich, & Mitchell, 1993). But why are some people more likely than others to seek out information in the first place? And why do some people seem to acquire more information through experience than do others? …

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