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Article

Democracy Confused: When People Mistake the Absence of Democracy for Its Presence

Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 2019. Vol. 50. No. 3. P. 315-335.
Kruse S., Ravlik M., Welzel C.

A widely neglected phenomenon consists in the fact that large population segments in many countries confuse the absence of democracy with its presence. Significantly, these are also the countries where widespread support for democracy coexists with persistent deficiencies in the latter, including its outright absence. Addressing this puzzle, we introduce a framework to sort out to what extent national populations overestimate their regimes’ democratic qualities. We test our hypotheses applying multilevel models to about 93,000 individuals from 75 countries covered by the cross-cultural World Values Surveys. We find that overestimating democracy is a widespread phenomenon, although it varies systematically across countries. Among a multitude of plausible influences, cognitive stimuli and emancipative values work together as a psychologically activating force that turns people against overestimating democracy. In fact, this psychological activation not only reduces overestimations of democracy; it actually leads toward underestimations, thus increasing criticality rather than accuracy in assessments. We conclude that, by elevating normative expectations, psychological activation releases prodemocratic selection pressures in the evolution of regimes.