The Less We Know, the Surer We Are, Study Finds

The researchers acknowledge a “very small” effect on participants’ opinions about raising the retirement age for Social Security Photograph by Peathegee Inc/Gallery Stock

Here’s a study that rings true: People tend to hold more extreme positions on complex policies when they don’t know very much about them, according to a research article in the academic journal Psychological Science. Having people attempt to explain how the policies work is enough to reduce their sense of certainty, as well as the extremity of their political positions.

Research subjects stated their positions on six political policies on a scale from strongly against to strongly in favor, and then rated their understanding of the policies. After that they were asked to provide a detailed explanation of two of the policies. “Attempting to explain policies made people feel uncertain about them, which in turn made them express more moderate views,” the researchers concluded.

In contrast, people didn’t seem to change their minds much when they were simply asked to explain why they felt they way they did about a policy.

The new research bolsters backers of “deliberative democracy,” a movement that tries to develop agreement on tough political issues by having people with different opinions get together and study potential solutions. When ordinary Americans study issues in detail, they tend to work toward practical solutions and stop using emotion-laden, all-or-nothing language, according to Toward Wiser Public Judgment (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011) by Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman.

The difference is that deliberative democracy requires people to gather information. The Psychological Science paper finds that simply asking them to explain a policy off the top of their heads has some of the same effect. “The present results suggest that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engaged in a substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in the more customary discussion of preferences and positions,” the researchers write.

“I think that asking them to explain can be a gateway to getting them to want to know more,” Philip Fernbach of the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, the lead author on the paper, said in an e-mail June 18. He wrote that it would be “very interesting” to “put Repubs and Dems together in a study group to learn about policies before having them debate the merits.”

The three authors in addition to Fernbach are Todd Rogers of Harvard’s Kennedy School; Craig Fox of UCLA’s psychology department and Anderson School of Management; and Steven Sloman of Brown University.

The researchers acknowledged that there was a “very small” effect on participants’ opinions about two of the policies, merit pay for teachers and raising the retirement age for Social Security. The four issues on which opinions moderated more dramatically were unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program; single-payer health care; a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions; and a national flat tax. Maybe respondents felt they understood merit pay and Social Security better.

The paper is prefaced with a quote from British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell that sounds as right today as when it was written in 1928: “The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists.”

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