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“Don’t Know” Responses, Personality, and the Measurement of Political Knowledge*

  • Stephen A. Jessee

A prominent worry in the measurement of political knowledge is that respondents who say they don’t know the answer to a survey question may have partial knowledge about the topic—more than respondents who answer incorrectly but less than those who answer correctly. It has also been asserted that differentials in respondents’ willingness to guess, driven strongly by personality, can bias traditional knowledge measures. Using a multinomial probit item response model, I show that, contrary to previous claims that “don’t know” responses to political knowledge questions conceal a good deal of “hidden knowledge,” these responses are actually reflective of less knowledge, not only than correct responses but also than incorrect answers. Furthermore, arguments that the meaning of “don’t know” responses varies strongly by respondent personality type are incorrect. In fact, these results hold for high- and low-trait respondents on each of the five most commonly used core personality measures.

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Stephen A. Jessee, Associate Professor, Department of Government, The University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station A1800 Austin, TX 78712 ( The author thanks John Bullock for extensive input and assistance throughout the course of this project and Rob McCulloch for sharing his code and providing extremely helpful advice. This project also benefited greatly from the input of Doug Rivers, Adam Bonica, James Scott, Scott Moser, Tse-min Lin, Chris Wlezian, Seth Hill, Alex Tahk, Christopher Fariss, and participants at the UCSD Methods Workshop and the University of Texas American Politics Workshop. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

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Political Science Research and Methods
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