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Psychologists find false attitude feedback can sway polarized voters to endorse more open-minded views



People with polarized political views can be led to endorse more centrist attitudes after being provided with false feedback about their responses to a political survey. This finding comes from a study published in PLOS One.

Evidence suggests that the American political scene is becoming increasingly polarized, a trend that threatens to lead political discussions away from critical thinking and open-mindedness.

“For example,” study authors Thomas Strandberg and colleagues say, “people tend to automatically support policy issues proposed by their own party and reject those coming from the opposition.” Furthermore, studies suggest that political polarization can lead to increased animosity between supporters of opposing parties, and can even go as far as affecting personal relationships among family members.

Strandberg and associates wanted to see if it was possible to sway people into endorsing more flexible attitudes towards politics, using an experimental manipulation called a choice blindness paradigm. The researchers describe choice blindness as a “cognitive phenomenon that occurs when people receive false feedback about a choice they had made, leading them to accept the outcome as their own and confabulate reasons for having made that choice in the first place.”

Two experimental studies were conducted among American voters prior to the 2016 presidential election. Study 1 involved 122 New Yorkers, of an average of 21 years of age, and Study 2 involved a more representative sample of 498 Americans, of an average of 31 years of age.

In both studies, participants answered a questionnaire where they rated presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump along 12 leadership traits (e.g., diplomatic, experienced) using a visual analog scale with the candidates’ faces pictured at opposite ends of the scale. “We asked participants to rate the candidates on each trait; for example, if they thought Clinton was more analytic, they would mark that scale closer to her, or if they thought Trump was, they would mark it closer to him,” the authors explain.

After subjects completed the survey, their most polarized responses were covertly adjusted towards the middle of the scale, to represent a more moderate viewpoint. For example, a subject who had marked ‘experienced’ as 94% on the Clinton side, had this response covertly moved to a more neutral position on the scale, at around 59%. Next, the subjects were asked to look over their completed — and unknowingly altered — surveys and were given the opportunity to revise their answers.

In Study 1, subjects were directly questioned about three of the manipulated responses, and, overall, only 28% of them corrected one of these altered responses. Only 4% corrected two responses, and no one corrected more than two. Additionally, many participants gave detailed justifications for these manipulated responses. As the researchers report, “When asked to explain their responses, 94% accepted the manipulated responses as their own and rationalized this neutral position accordingly, even though they reported more polarized views moments earlier.”

In Study 2, similar findings were revealed. When participants were given the opportunity to revisit their responses, on average, participants corrected about 2 out of 5 manipulated responses. There were no significant differences in the number of corrections made by Trump or Clinton supporters, suggesting that both Republican and Democrat voters are equally susceptible to false feedback and just as easily manipulated into endorsing a more open-minded viewpoint.

“Our study reveals that American voters at either end of the political spectrum are willing to endorse more open views about both candidates with surprisingly little intervention. Here, suggesting to people that they are more open-minded removed their political blinders and nudged them to consider and argue for more moderate views,” Strandberg and colleagues say.

The researchers further suggest that their study demonstrates the potential for a more open political landscape in the US. “These results offer hope in a divided political climate: even polarized people can become—at least momentarily—open to opposing views.”

The study, “Depolarizing American voters: Democrats and Republicans are equally susceptible to false attitude feedback”, was authored by Thomas Strandberg, Jay A. Olson, Lars Hall, Andy Woods, and Petter Johansson.

(Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian)


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