Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Back in February, we looked at some experimental data from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green that offered insight into the less rational side of our political beliefs, and into the value of face-to-face conversations with the objects of our prejudices in moderating our positions and changing our minds. Taking the issue of gay marriage as a test case, their study, published in Science, concluded that a rational argument in favor of marriage equality, when combined with direct interaction with a flesh-and-blood gay activist, was the most effective route to changing minds – and to having those changes stick. And they concluded that the rational argument alone was inadequate to the task.

Today, we look at a different face of our less-than-rational political selves: unjustified confidence in our understanding of the issues. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, authors Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman examine the mentality of extreme political beliefs, and some strategies for how they might be moderated, better opening the door to the possibility of compromise.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Fernbach and his colleagues look at what they see as a connection between extremity of position and depth of understanding. They contend that when people are required to confront their relative ignorance on a given political issue, they become more likely to abandon their extreme position, and to embrace more moderate positions instead. People tend to have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies, they write, and when they are asked – specifically – to explain those policies, the illusion of understanding evaporates and they become more open to other sorts of views.

To test this, the authors conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked participants to rate how well they thought they understood six hot-button political issues – issues like raising the retirement age for Social Security and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for their nuclear program. They asked the participants to provide explanations for the policies they claimed to support, and then, after that, re-rated both how well participants thought they understood the policies, and how extreme their positions were.

Across all six political issues, 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.

In their second experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether it was having to explain the policies specifically that moderated participants’ positions, or whether some other in-depth discussion – like enumerating reasons why they held the policy attitude they did – would be adequate. Here, they had half of their participants explain, and half enumerate their rationale. And what they found was that the latter was inadequate: enumerating reasons did not lead to any change in position extremity at all.

Finally, Ferbach and his colleagues’ third experiment tested whether increased moderation on political issues would lead to less material support for political figures and organizations that advocate for those extreme political positions. Participants were given the opportunity to donate money to organizations that supported their initial extreme position. And after asking participants to explain their position, what the researchers found was that, indeed, they were less likely to show that kind of material support.

From the perspective of civility, what is interesting about this study is less the increase in political moderation than the question of understanding. Civil discourse – the kind of discourse where I can claim my needs even as I recognize that you have valid needs, too – does not necessarily require that we hold middle-of-the-road views. But it does require understanding. It requires that we understand that there is more than one valid point of view on most political issues. And it requires that we understand – at least a little bit – the intricacies of the policy position we would like to see implemented.

In their conclusion, Fernbach and his fellow researchers write that:

Previous research has shown that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation. One reason 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.

And this is really the point. It matters less that we all moderate our attitudes than that we understand the policies on which we claim to hold such strong opinions. The more we understand, the more it becomes clear just how little we understand. And it is from that place – from a self-reflective acknowledgment of our own ignorance – that we can begin to see that our adversaries may have a point, and that their point of view may deserve serious consideration, too.