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Political extremism can be moderated by asking people a simple question

Researchers found that once people realize their lack of knowledge on public policies, they moderate their views.

Psychologist Philip Fernbach and his colleagues found that “asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies.”
REUTERS/Jason Reed

Could we diffuse some of the intense political polarization in our country — on matters, say, like health care or global warming or voter registration — by asking individuals who hold extreme views to describe exactly how their proposed policy solutions would work in the real world?

Yes, according to a study published recently in the journal Psychological Science. In a series of experiments, a team of researchers led by psychologist Philip Fernbach of the University of Colorado found that 1) people generally know less about public policies than they think they do, and 2) once they realize their lack of knowledge, they tend to moderate their views.

No surprise with that first finding. I suspect, however, that many people will find the second finding at least somewhat unexpected — but also, perhaps, hopeful.

“Many of the most important issues facing society — from climate change to health care to poverty — require complex policy solutions about which citizens hold polarized political preferences,” write Fernbach and his colleagues in the introduction to their study. “A central puzzle of modern American politics is how so many voters can maintain strong political views concerning complex policies yet remain relative uninformed about how such policies would bring about desired outcomes.”

A trio of experiments

To get to the bottom of this apparent paradox, the researchers designed three separate experiments. In the first, 198 U.S. residents (Democrats, Republicans, independents and a handful of “others”) were asked to state their position on six political policies using a seven-point scale, from “strongly against” to “strongly in favor.” The participants were also asked to rate (using another seven-point scale) how knowledgeable they were about each of these issues.

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The policies involved imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, raising the retirement age for Social Security, transitioning to a single-payer health care system, establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, instituting a national flat tax, and implementing merit-based pay for teachers.

Each participant was then asked to provide a detailed mechanistic explanation for two of the policies. In other words, they were asked to explain precisely how the policies worked — or didn’t work — to achieve their intended outcomes.

After explaining the mechanisms of the policies, the participants re-rated their positions on each of them — and rated how certain they were of those positions.

Fernbach and his colleagues found that “asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies.”

And the people who reported the greatest decline in their perceived understanding of an issue tended to moderate their views the most.

Less likely to donate, too

The second experiment, which involved 141 participants, was similar in design. Only this time, some of the participants were asked to list the reasons why they held a particular position on a policy rather than to explain how the policy worked.

Fernbach and his colleagues found that this task did not moderate the participants’ views, although it didn’t necessarily increase the extremity of those views either, as had been demonstrated in earlier research.

In the third experiment, 101 participants were asked to provide either a mechanistic explanation of a policy or the reasons why they supported or opposed it. They were then given the option of donating a small bonus payment for their participation in the study to an organization that advocated for the issue in question or to one that advocated against it. They could also opt to keep the bonus payment themselves or to turn it down altogether.

The experiment found that participants who moderated their views after being asked to explain how a policy worked were less likely to donate to an organization that supported their original position.

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Needed: more education 

The results of these three experiments suggest, say Fernbach and his colleagues, “that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge.”

The first step, therefore, to diffusing political polarization might be to encourage people to recognize that political policies are highly complex and that their personal knowledge of the detailed working of those policies — particularly the ones for which they hold extreme positions — is likely to be very limited.

“Previous research has shown,” note Fernbach and his colleagues, “that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation. One reasons for the effectiveness of this strategy may be that educating citizens on how policies work moderates their attitudes, increasing their willingness to explore opposing views and to compromise. More generally, the present results suggest that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engaged in a substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in the more customary discussion of preferences and positions.”

One can always hope.

The study appears in the May issue of Psychological Science, and can be found on several sites online, including here.