Mind Politics

Political extremism can be moderated by asking people a simple question

Political extremism can be moderated by asking people a simple question

… 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.” …

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 fax, 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….


As far as my political views, I think voter warming is a proven fact and I’ve been hoping they get hot enough– and smart enough– to fix some things.

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