One of the challenges of our modern political dialog is how difficult it is to change individuals’ opinions on key issues. The “culture wars” have been intractable for decades and the rise of personality politics is making consensus building even more difficult.
President Trump famously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Americans are so entrenched on political issues it has hollowed out the persuadable middle. It’s one of the reasons modern campaigns are so focused on base turnout, rather than persuasion. Some political opinions are also markers of status or tribe, making persuasion even more impossible.
In our experiment, we first gave false-feedback about their choices, but this time concerning actual political questions (e.g., climate taxes on consumer goods). Participants were then asked to state their views a second time that same day, and again one week later. The results were striking. Participants’ responses were shifted considerably in the direction of the manipulation. For instance, those who originally had favoured higher taxes were more likely to be undecided or even opposed to it.
These effects lasted up to a week later. The changes in their opinions were also larger when they were asked to give an argument—or rationalization—for their new opinion. It seems that giving people the opportunity to reason reinforced the false-feedback and led them further away from their initial attitude.
Why do attitudes shift in our experiment? The difference is that when faced with the false-feedback people are free from the motives that normally lead them to defend themselves or their ideas from external criticism. Instead they can consider the benefits of the alternative position.
Essentially, the method is to trick people into letting their guards down and allow themselves to argue the other side. And we often find ourselves more convincing than anyone else.
Cabot Phillips and the Campus Reform team have turned this into an art form with their on-campus videos getting students to confront their own political beliefs:
As we see in these videos and the study’s authors note, these findings suggest “that people have a pretty high degree of flexibility about their political views once you strip away the things that normally make them defensive.”