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Political extremism can be moderated by asking people a simple question

REUTERS/Jason Reed
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.”

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.

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.

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/07/2013 - 10:03 am.

    Attaining moderation

    …seems likely to be something of an exercise in frustration. Television news (and one network in particular, which I won’t name, but that begins with the letter after “E”) provides virtually no factual basis for making the kinds of nuanced judgments called for if moderation of extreme positions is the goal. Detailed knowledge of how policies actually work requires either on-the-scene experience, or a fair amount of reading. Few people have the necessary on-the-job experience, and increasing numbers of people get their “news” from TV, which is unreliable at best, and little more than a headline service between commercials at its worst. An “in-depth” story on local TV news involves perhaps 2 to 3 minutes of air time, and if it’s really seen as important by the news director, the story might be stretched out over 4 or 5 nights, so as to appear comprehensive. Even then, what the public has seen is 10 minutes of explanation for a topic or policy that might actually require an hour, or 2, or 3 to properly explore.

    It’s an interesting study, and it does provide a glimmer of hope, but only a glimmer. I won’t hold my breath waiting for some sort of magical transformation of public discourse.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/07/2013 - 10:26 am.

    It would be interesting

    To know when the extent of “moderation” was measured. It is common to have a conversation with someone holding very strong opinions and, as a result of that conversation, have them confess to significant weaknesses in their viewpoint, but then after a period of time (a month, a few hours), they have rebounded to their prior opinions as though the conversation never happened.

    By the way, the fact that someone has views at a far end of the conventional political spectrum does not in itself make those views “extreme.” Given how far in one particular direction the conventional political spectrum has been pulled (see “Overton window”), views on one far end in fact may be quite moderate (and views in the middle may be quite extreme). Just sayin’.

  3. Submitted by Marcia Wattson on 06/07/2013 - 11:04 am.

    Great article, Susan

    This is good information and good news. The solutions to major policy issues like taxes, immigration reform, national security, healthcare, and other thorny problems tend to involve a complex combination of ideas from across the spectrum. What does it say, however, about the polarization and lack of compromise in Congress and the extreme positions advocated in much of the (right wing) media? That our elected representatives and the media people are not very knowledgeable about the issues they are debating? Perhaps President Obama is right after all, that good government begins with engaged and informed citizens. Thanks for doing your part in making that happen.

  4. Submitted by John Edwards on 06/07/2013 - 11:53 am.

    I think I know the answer

    Ray: I think I know the news network you are referring to, although you might want to review the alphabet. It is obviously MSNBC, which coincidentally is the liberals’ favorite. As its president Phil Griffin said recently: “we are not the place for breaking news.” On the other hand, the one that starts with F, Fox, is the only news organization subjecting President Obama to any scrutiny, thereby giving all of us a better basis on which to form our opinions.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/07/2013 - 12:18 pm.

    The less one knows about a particular situation, the less nuanced a view can be held on that situation.

    After all, what situation in your own life doesn’t have nuance? Teen-age pregnancy? Those parents must be terrible people!! But wait until it happens in your family. Drug addiction? Weak, slack people! But wait until it happens in your family. Food stamps? Lazy “takers” who mooch off of everyone else. But wait until you get laid off.

    On and on.

  6. Submitted by Ray Gillies on 06/07/2013 - 12:46 pm.

    There is a learning process that my father, a doctor, always used to repeat. Watch one – do one – teach one.

    Truly you find the holes in your understanding when it gets to teach one. If you can’t clearly explain something – you don’t clearly understand it. Probably one of the fundamentals in my life that really really works.

    By now my cat is a expert on a whole bunch of different subjects. He is the only one who listens even when he is bored to death.

  7. Submitted by Carolyn Jackson on 06/07/2013 - 02:49 pm.

    “Forcing them to confront their ignorance”

    is the problem. Has anyone looked at whether frustration with complexity is acutally the motivator for extreme views, rather than the actual issue? I think that would be an eye opening study.

  8. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/07/2013 - 02:53 pm.

    Your photo shows people expressing a conservative view

    But of course. And the inference is that the view expressed is extreme.

    In this instance, which is frequently the case on MinnPost, the writing in comments surpasses the writing in the column. A tip of the hat to Chuck, John, Neal, and Ray, for your thoughtful commentary.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/08/2013 - 11:27 am.

      Perhaps someone from MinnPost can clarify this . . . .

      but I believe the pictures at the head of articles are generally not selected by the author of the article itself.

  9. Submitted by ALAN BELISLE on 06/08/2013 - 10:01 am.

    political discussion

    “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/08/2013 - 12:00 pm.

    Polar words

    This study reminds me of a book written by Thurman Arnold in 1937 called “The Folklore of Capitalism.” Arnold was a well known lawyer who became a law professor at Yale, and later the Assistant Attorney General in charge of antitrust enforcement up and during WWII.

    A lot of “Folklore” deals with how “polar words” and the “Folklore of Capitalism” have muddled rational public discourse during (and about) the New Deal. His discussions about antitrust are somewhat comical and ironic since he was later given the task by President Roosevelt of enforcing the laws he found so outmoded.

    Some of the issues he talks about are ones we are still debating today with about as much success as 1937. Because of “polar words” which disarm rational discussion.

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