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Moderating Political Opinions

by Steven Novella, Nov 05 2012

Tomorrow (Tuesday November 6th) is election day in the US. The talk of the pundits generally focuses on the fact that this is a very close election and, despite rhetoric from both candidates about bipartisanship, the country seems to be extremely politically polarized. The consensus of opinion is that Democrats and Republicans over the last couple of decades have become more homogeneous, more tribal, and more extreme. (Meanwhile the number of people who identify as independents has increased.) For me political campaigns are a massive exercise in confirmation bias – watching both sides spin the same data in completely opposite directions.

There is no shortage of theories as to why this is the case, but there is also the separate question of what can be done to break, or at least moderate, this polarization. In a series of experiments psychologists have found that slowing down the process of evaluating a political question, and engaging people’s abstract thinking, moderates their political views.

In the first series of experiments Preston and Hernandez found that by giving subjects information in a hard to read font their opinions would be more thoughtful and moderate. They gave two groups a description of a defendant in a capital murder case. One description praised the defendant’s character while the other criticized it. They were then given “sketchy” evidence suggesting the defendant’s guilt. The two groups interpreted the ambiguous evidence differently, with those reading a positive description of the defendant’s character less often finding the evidence sufficient to convict.

So the groups were essentially biased in one direction or the other then asked to look at ambiguous evidence and the bias had a measurable effect on their assessment of the evidence. The same effect was seen if the subjects were sorted by pre-existing political ideology rather than the assigned bias of reading a positive or negative character description. However, if the personality and evidence descriptions were given in a difficult-to-read font, this effect was decreased (not eliminated).

One further finding is that if the subjects were under cognitive load (given another simultaneous task) the moderating effect of reading a difficult font was not present.

The researchers interpret all of this as the action of confirmation bias – a core cognitive bias that motivates people to seek out and notice information that confirms existing beliefs and either ignore or dismiss evidence against their existing beliefs or in favor of a competing belief. Confirmation bias is the default mode of human thinking – the cognitive pathway of least resistance that we will tend to follow. If you force people to slow down and think harder, even in a manner tangential to the question at hand, confirmation bias is moderated by deeper evaluation. However – deeper evaluation takes cognitive energy, and if you deprive subjects of this energy by giving them another task to perform, then the default mode of confirmation bias takes hold.

In a more recent series of experiments (paper is behind a paywall, here is the press release) Preston, Yang, and Hernandez looked at attitudes toward building a mosque near ground zero of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. This time they surveyed subjects for their attitudes on building a mosque in this location, and then gave two groups different tasks – the first was to ask a series of “how” questions and the second a series of “why” questions, but on completely unrelated topics. They found that the “why” group, but not the “how” group, moderated their views on building a mosque. The effect was present for both liberals and conservatives. Preston interprets the results:

“We observed that liberals and conservatives became more moderate in their attitudes. After this very brief task that just put them in this abstract mindset, they were more willing to consider the point of view of the opposition.”

This experiment was not about confirmation bias but rather simply taking the time to consider all points of view on an issue. When people were in the mode of abstract thinking, they were more likely to do this, even on an unrelated topic.

These experiments involve short-term psychological manipulation in order elicit the effects seen. There is no evidence of any long term moderation from any of the manipulations. They do, however, demonstrate very interesting principles – that many people are capable of thinking more deeply and objectively about topics, even those that are highly emotional and political. In these studies external factors were used to increase abstract thinking and reduce confirmation bias in the short term. What if we can internalize these effects in the long term?

Imagine if students were systematically educated to engage abstract thinking and to ward off the effects of confirmation bias (and other biases) when considering important issues (or all issues, for that matter). This, in essence, is scientific skepticism. Skeptics are those who do not simply flow down the path of least resistance, giving in to the lowest energy state of thought, surrendering to cognitive entropy. Skepticism is about understanding the nature of cognitive biases and then doing the hard mental work of thinking complexly and abstractly about important questions.

The trigger for skeptical evaluation needs to be internal. In this way being a skeptic is partly just a habit of thought. The skeptic stops and asks, “wait a minute, is this really true?” When confronting an opposing opinion or interpretation of the evidence, the skeptic tries to understand the various points of view and will at least try to fairly assess each point, recognizing that many topics are complex, with good and bad points on all sides.

Being a skeptic is also about applying the findings of decades of psychological research to our everyday lives. It is a shame that psychologists have conducted thousands of experiments carefully describing the many ways in which human thinking is biased, and yet public awareness of this useful body of knowledge is limited.

As a result, election day will likely be little more than a national exercise in confirmation bias.

27 Responses to “Moderating Political Opinions”

  1. hardindr says:

    While this blog post does not come out and say it, Steve Novella seems to imply that “moderating” people’s political beliefs is a good thing? Why should this be the case?

    Also, it cites no evidence that people’s political beliefs in the US have become more “extreme.” Would he cite some?

  2. Somite says:

    The hypothesis that both liberals and conservatives have become more extreme is not consistent with the data. I guess Steve missed the recent XKCD infographic that looked at this issue. It is clear that republicans in a leadership position have become much more ideological than the comparable democrats.

    I also don’t see democrats in the media screaming about hard line liberal positions. The most they can muster is “affordable health care” and holding on to the FDA and EPA. Hardly radical liberal notions.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Counter-example: Joe Lieberman. In 2000 he was one of the Democratic Party’s leading lights, a mainstream candidate who was Gore’s running mate. By 2006 he didn’t get the Democrat nomination for his Senate seat (though he won handily as an independent). So which party, exactly, has abandoned its moderates?

      • Janet Camp says:

        By 2006, Joe was no longer much of a Democrat, let alone a moderate– and that is why he did not get the nomination.

  3. Daniel says:

    Things are less polarized then the talking heads would you have believe. In fact, in most of the Western world, there’s a great deal of consensus about how government should work. When put in perspective, the differences across the mainstream political spectrum are relatively minor. In the US anyway, there’s no serious consideration given to, say, the elimination of the federal income tax, the end of the welfare state in any true sense. We instead argue about whether the top marginal rate ought to be thirty percent or forty percent, whether there ought to be stronger work requirements for welfare. That is, the day-to-day impact of the government on the vast majority of people’s lives won’t be any different if there is a Republican or Democratic dominated government. And no, this is not the result of some corporate conspiracy as people like Prothero would have you believe.

    A polarized electorate is Germany in 1932, or for that matter, the United States in 1800.

  4. Max says:

    Here’s one graph of the ideology spread in Congress.

  5. Willy says:

    Perhaps this is an argument to disable the zoom feature in browsers.

  6. Max says:

    “However, if the personality and evidence descriptions were given in a difficult-to-read font, this effect was decreased (no eliminated).”

    Uh, maybe because they couldn’t read it?

  7. Max says:

    The more I look for confirmation bias, the more I see it everywhere.

  8. Max says:

    Both the left and right wingnuts ridicule the undecideds for being clueless. They can’t imagine that someone might actually listen to both sides and weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.

    • Bill says:

      There’s no ‘right side’ or ‘left side’.
      There’s my way or the highway.


      • Cathy Chance says:

        Perhaps we’re undecided because the choices offered are so poor and unreflective of what moderates are looking for.

    • Janet Camp says:

      Why is someone who identifies with the positions stated in a party platform, and therefore votes for that party, a “wingnut”?

      No amount of “listening to the other side” is going to make me want to deprive gay people of their civil rights, deny women control over their own reproduction, deny climate change, support “teaching the controversy”, support wars started under false pretenses, or think of my 86 year old mother as a “taker” because she lives on social security and gets food stamps.

      There are no pros and cons to the validity of climate change and any regular reader of this blog should know a false equivalency when he sees it. Make the font as difficult as you like.

  9. Max says:
    “Bem is perhaps best known for his theory of ‘self-perception,’ the most oft-cited competitor to Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. According to the self-perception theory, people infer their attitudes from their own behavior much as an outside observer might. For example, a person asked to give a pro-Fidel Castro speech would consequently view him or herself as more in favor of Castro.”

    That’s the same Daryl Bem who did the parapsychology study on precognition.

  10. d brown says:

    “relative moderates like Senator Lieberman”? Maybe he was, but not that I can remember. Oh relative to Newt maybe, who started all this name calling, wedge issue way of dividing and winning. If you care you can look it up. Some loud people keep saying both sides do the same. This just shows how bad their memory and grasp of history is. If you said Bush’s wars were dumb you are a liberal commie. Never mind that the facts have shown you were right, you still are. Saying that the more tax cut we have, the worse off the USA is not just wrong but a sin. Right-wing matters more than right. Facts not faith matters in the real world. Nature can not be fooled, just voters. The Nazis said make it simple and keep saying it and people will believe it.

  11. Phil says:

    As has been pointed out, one party has gone far more conservative than the other has gone liberal. The more Conservative party has elected officials who believe that meeting in the middle means doing what he says. Thus this study may be interesting but not necessarily desirable.

  12. Phil says:

    And yes it does work the other way. Vaccines don’t cause autism and I don’t see how moderating your point of view is helpful. Vaccines cause a bit? Settle on 50 % of vaccines causing autism? Is murder wrong? Half wrong? Wrong only on alternate days?

  13. d brown says:

    One party has said over and over they are using tax cuts to make the country too poor to pay for anything that started after 1930, there is no climate change and many other things that are simply wrong. Some loud people keep saying the country is far more conservative now. But they tell polls they are conservative, but they don’t want what real conservatives want.