In advance of this year’s national election, AAAS is bringing together scientists who have studied how people make up their minds about political issues and, once their opinions are set, how people can change their views.
Science Magazine has published a few articles on this topic in 2016. One paper, by Noah Friedkin, explored the question “how do some beliefs within groups persist in the face of social pressure, whereas others change and, by changing, influence a cascade of other beliefs?” Another written by two of us, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, describes our field experiment that showed that 1 in 10 Miami voters shifted their attitudes toward transgender individuals and maintained those changed positions for 3 months.
We are joined by Drs. Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, authors of “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction.”
In the final weekend before the election, we suspect that many family and friends will be speaking about issues that are important to them. Ask us anything on the science of political persuasion!
We’ll be back at noon EST (9 am PST, 4 pm UTC) to answer your questions, ask us anything!
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Hi everyone, thanks for the AMA!
As I understand, a lot of your work involves in-person interaction, but a lot of interactions these days also occur online (including on sites like this one). When users can customize their own experience, they seem to cluster in self-reinforcing groups on social media some have called echo-chambers. How concerned are you with this echo-chamber effect, where many people are less exposed to ideas that challenge their beliefs? Does it make persuasion harder? If so what changes might bridge the gap?
I realize I’m also pre-supposing that this effect is inherently bad, so related question: Are there benefits to this phenomenon? Any silver linings?
Samara Klar (SK): Thanks for your questions!
On one hand, you’re right. Individuals on social media do tend to cluster into like-minded groups. For eg. Conover et al. show a nice example of this on Twitter
But, on the other hand, social media also allow for access to what network scientists refer to as weak links — casual acquaintances, for example, who connect you to more disparate parts of the network. Scholars at Facebook have shown that weak links actually drive the majority of information exchange on Facebook. Due to this access to weak ties, some scholars are arguing that the “echo chamber” effect on social media has been overstated. For example, Pablo Barbera and his colleagues find evidence of ideologically diverse communication.
In research I’ve done with Yotam Shmargad at the University of Arizona’s Center for Digital Society and Data Studies (forthcoming at the Journal of Politics), we find that the structure of on-line networks can actually facilitate exposure to diverse information and can even result in attitude shifts. Specifically, networks that contain more weak ties who are connected to more distant regions of the network allow individuals to be exposed to under-represented viewpoints and, subsequently, those individuals become more sympathetic to those viewpoints. So one way to combat the “echo chamber effect” that you speak of is for individuals to maintain structurally diverse networks and for social media platform to encourage these types of links.
Thanks for the reply!
How would a platform encourage “weak links” like this? What policies or features could drive those interactions?
Hey all! Thanks for doing this!
Why do you think that folks on both sides of the political aisle believe that in order to win a political discussion, they have to resort to aggressive rhetoric and extreme examples? I can’t count the number of threads and facebook posts which demonize an entire voting block because of a “my way or the highway” attitude. Especially if they disagree over a single issue (e.g., gun rights, abortion, etc). Can we expect this type of political discussion now the status quo for all future political discussions and do you predict that this will be troublesome with respect to any political progress?
I suspect part of the answer is that people feel their very identities are at stake. Most feel intuitively that their opinions make them who they are. You challenge their opinions, you threaten them as a person. I know this is not true and yet even I sometimes feel this way. So how can it be overcome? How do we set a new paradigm where idenitity and opinion are not so closely intertwined?
SK: The question-asker is indeed correct — identities are hugely connect to individuals’ political preferences and opinions. Politics is really all about representing individual interests and, naturally, our interest are centered around who we are as people.
Of course, we all identify with a huge number of different identity groups — whether it’s your party identification, your occupation, your family roles, your race, your religious…. — and, many times, these identities might not line up with the same side of a policy debate. These instances are particularly interesting for me, as a political scientist.
In my work, I’ve found that when an individual’s social identity is under threat, then he or she is likely to support policies that align with that identity group’s interest, instead of their partisan identity. Spencer Piston at Boston University and I, found that threats to an individual’s identity group can even increase the amount of money they donate to related charities.
Really interesting work on identities comes from Liliana Mason, at the University of Maryland. She finds that the most that an individual’s identities align with one single political party, the greater the social distance that person feels from the other party. Whereas individuals whose identities connect with both parties are less affectively polarized.
In sum, identities are certainly intertwined with our political attitudes and behaviors. But I don’t know if this should be overcome as the commenter says.. I would argue that this is really what politics is all about — representing who we are as people.
identities are certainly intertwined with our political attitudes and behaviors. But I don’t know if this should be overcome as the commenter says.. I would argue that this is really what politics is all about
But then if all politics is identity politics, what does that say about the modern meritocratic liberal-capitalist state where ostensibly individuals act in spite of their identities?
Should there be a gay party, a black party, a white party, or a Walmart party, etc?
I’ll go more generic:
people hate being wrong. When you challenge their opinions, you’re saying “you’re wrong.” Almost no one has the mindset of “I love being proved wrong because I get to learn something new!”
many political opinions are based around self-interest: if you challenge someone’ss tax policy, you’re saying “I do not want you to get a free university education at my expense.” If you challenge someone’s immigration stance, you’re saying “I do not want you to live in a society of white people.”
“I love being proved wrong because I get to learn something new!”
Saying exactly this in an interview got me a job…I wish it were something more common.
I just don’t get how most people don’t feel “good” when they learn something new. I get this exciting feeling, along with being a little upset if I was previously spreading misinformation.
Honestly it just makes it all the more better if it was something I strongly believed. I accept that most people don’t feel this way, but do not understand why.
Agreed. But just to expand and connect: 1. They hate to be wrong because of the issue I raised (their identities are at stake if they’re wrong). 2. Yes, yes, yes. And if (for example) you don’t want to help fund someone else’s university education and are confronted by the possibility that this is a small and selfish point of view, you are going to reject it in order not to have to confront any unpleasant realizations about yourself. (I know this all sounds smug, but I speak as someone who has had to confront unpleasant realizations about my own opinions and I’m a wee bit proud to say, I did it. And I changed my opinions. Quite radically, actually.)
Just to clarify for anyone else who reads this exchange, the parent comment does not say you necessarily are small if you reject free university education. He’s saying you will be confronted with the possibility that it’s true. You might just think it’s an economically destructive policy position. So don’t vote the guy down 🙂
Edit Actually I’ll go so far as to say all political opinions are formed in self-interest, even if that self-interest is just in making you feel proud or satisified at how selfless you are. I think the only truly self-sacrificing act is to save another person knowing you will definitely die while simultaneously holding a belief that there is no afterlife and that life is something that ought to be held onto as long as possible. Everything else is a feel-good decision, ultimately.
I have also noticed a trend that if I happen to have the opinion that a particular candidate spreads a negative and potentially harmful set of views, I am immediately dismissed regardless of the respect I try to bring to any discussion.
However, I would be the first to admit that the person they are “against” has done things that would make me question blindly voting for them. But as soon as I am identified as this third type of person, again dismissed. Giving people endless space to make comments on everything has become a legitimate shit show of epic proportions and leaves me questioning how we move forward with civil discourse. We were told to avoid feeding the trolls for so long and now we can’t have a reasonable debate without resorting to name calling and a culture of “othering”.
I fully understand self-interest is at play but with no accountability how can there ever be self-realization? I’ve known or believed a great many things to be true beyond a doubt. But it’s in my nature to continually look inward to ensure that my views weren’t being forced onto others. I despise the US VS THEM mentality and now, more than ever, I feel like an alien third party seeing two unknown adversaries fighting in the streets and neither of them seem capable to acknowledge the other is an actual human being.
Decisive politics isn’t new but this is something different.
It seems like objective facts don’t even exist today. Instead of working from the beginning on common ground, each party manufactures a conclusion and calls forth an expert to legitimize their opposing views. No wonder we can’t agree on anything. If we can’t agree on what is reality and what is fact, how we have a discussion? Political discourse is dead. Now we just argue about what they tell us to argue about.
It sounds like you’re saying the only selfless act is sacrificing your life for another, but only if you have no incentive to do so. But I want to point out that with no incentive, there would be no reason and no motivation to make the sacrifice at all. It would be a nonsensical action and not at all noble.
To take it a little further, it seems like politicians know this is a fact, and have tried to dissect the issues into things that are very binary. Issues that clearly have a line of demarcation to them. And unfortunately, I think that a lot of the nuance goes missing because it’s so easy to say “He’s not on my side of the line, he must be wrong”.
Are some people inherently more open to changing their views, and if so, what causes this?
Yanna Krupnikov (YK):Much of the research in political science focuses on the idea that people aren’t likely to change their minds Even though many scholars (see for example Lodge and Taber’s book) find this in many contexts, but not all people are immune to persuasion.
First – and most obviously – people who have weak opinions are most open to new information and changing views. But its more than just a weak opinion. In their book, Hillygus and Shields show that people who have positions that are in some way unusual for their partisan group (so, for example Republicans who hold a liberal position on one issue or Democrats who hold a conservative position on one issue) are also more likely to change their minds.
Your question is about individual characteristics, but there is also the question of context. Some people are more or less open to persuasion depending on the context they are in. In my own research with Eric Groenendyk, I’ve shown that once you put someone into a very combative, political context, their “shields” go up and they become much more likely to dismiss a lot of information. In contrast, you may find people to be more open to political information in a situation that is less combative and less political.
Similarly, Bashir’s work in psychology suggests that people are resist information transmitted by those who call themselves “activists.”
So, what this may suggest people are more likely to resist information from those who have a long history of trying to persuade them or a long history of combative behavior but may be more welcoming of new information from those that they do not necessarily view as having purely political goals.
Of course, some people are closed to persuasion no matter what, but for others context/persuader may play a key role.
Which action is more effective at changing the mind of voters on political topics:
- Watching the candidates debate directly about the topics
or 2. Reading debates between complete strangers on the internet about the topics?
DB: My favorite study on this is an oldie-but-goodie by Alan Abramowitz http://www.jstor.org/stable/2110467. The study finds that when people watched a Presidential debate, they just updated their views on the issues to match whatever their favored candidate said, and never actually changed their views on the candidates. So, on the one hand, debates between candidates seem to be effective at changing people’s views on issues — but not their views on the candidates! This is consistent with some other research not on debates by myself and by Gabe Lenz (see http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.175.8385&rep=rep1&type=pdf and http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.711.8724&rep=rep1&type=pdf) that when people learn what politicians think about issues, they are much more likely to just start parroting whatever the politician says than to change their view on the issue. In a certain way, it all suggests that what people think on issues doesn’t matter as much as we like to think. More generally, there’s actually been a fair amount of research where people are experimentally encouraged to watch debates, or randomly assigned to have access to them. Here are a few of my favorites:
You also asked about whether interactions between strangers might change people’s views. There, I think there is some reason to be optimistic. Here’s my favorite study on this, where people were randomly assigned to tables at a “deliberation” event were more likely to agree with what people at their table said after the event: https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/getFile.aspx?Id=986. And our research on door-to-door canvassing (as well as other research on the same) has likewise found that when a stranger knocks on your door, they can change your mind.
Hey, thanks for this AMA, it’s a very interesting topic.
I am wondering if you have found anything in your research about what is most effective when trying to persuade someone to your side of the political argument? I am the type to always use facts and reasoning that can be cited and proven but I have heard that emotional reasoning can be more effective. Have you found anything to support either tactic?
JK: A brand-new book by psychologist Robert Cialdini (https://www.amazon.com/Pre-Suasion-Revolutionary-Way-Influence-Persuade-ebook/dp/B01C36E2YS) looks to general principles of persuasion – from business, psychology, politics, and other fields. Cialdini argues that effective persuasion is less about “altering a listener’s attitudes, beliefs, or experiences” than changing a listener’s “state of mind”.
There is certainly a lot of research in political science that demonstrates the effectiveness of emotional appeals. For example, see Ted Brader’s work (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo3640346.html).
Enthusiasm, for example, tends to reinforce individuals’ pre-existing opinions while anxiety has somewhat of the opposite effect, moving individuals to reevaluate their options. In Samara’s work, she finds that threat can drive individuals to support policies that actually counteract their own party, when those preferences line up with the individual’s other identity groups (http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/pub/Klar%202013.pdf). Emotions can be an effective way to persuade.
In Samara’s work, she finds that threat can drive individuals to support policies that actually counteract their own party, when those preferences line up with the individual’s other identity groups (http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/pub/Klar%202013.pdf). Emotions can be an effective way to persuade.
Understated comment of the thread.
Does your research involve social media and if so did you separate platforms to discover if Twitter or Facebook users were more/less willing/able to change their minds? How did this compare to people who did not use social media to engage in political discussion? Finally, do you have any historical evidence to make a claim that people are more or less inclined to stick to their position than say, before the proliferation of Internet, televisions, radio or even print?
I recently had an online discussion where I was told “I don’t believe ‘facts’. I know what I know and won’t ever change.” On what basis do people form ideas and opinions if they are consciously anti-fact? What are other types of input and motivators that are being employed and how can they be used to sway an opinion?
I think a lot of that can be caused by the popular way of presenting “facts” that are biased, one sided, irrelevant, or misleading for the sole purpose of manipulation. So now the idea of a fact has been undermined and people are like “Sure, i’m not arguing that whatever you are saying is true in some specific way that you believe entirely, however that doesn’t convince me of ___ because i’m so used to people trying to manipulate me. I also already know we disagree on ___ so I am throwing out everything you say about ___ as well.”
There’s also the whole part about distrusting statistics, because most people don’t know how to interpret statistics, and those who present them know that, so, they use conditions which leads them to the conclusion they want in the first place.
A lots of things pushed as “facts” are statistics, tailored to get an specific answer. With people then using those “facts” outside of the context where the statistics are taken, to push other “facts”.
Lots of “facts” aren’t “facts”, or, aren’t actually about what they purport to be.
Exactly. Statistics is something I believe should be pushed far more strongly in high school due to it being a large factor in many criminal and civil cases that random juries of peers are supposed to be able to understand.
JK: Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, has conducted a number of studies on the role of conspiracy theories and misinformation in American politics. You can check out his research at (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/). Nyhan has found that fact checking can reduce the likelihood that state legislators will make untrue claims (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fact-checking-elites.pdf) but that among voters, sometimes correcting facts is effective, while other times it may backfire.
SK: The truth is that most Americans, no matter how “sophisticated” or interested in politics you might, simply do not have the time or the resources to gather all the facts. While we might have opinions on a particular legislative policy, for example, we probably have not read the hundred-page policy that circulated Congress.
Instead, we rely to a large degree on heuristics or short-cuts. And, in fact, scholars have shown that short-cuts can be extremely helpful in reaching the same decisions that we would have reached had we actually read all of the hundreds of pages of pertinent information. Michael Bang Petersen suggests that heuristics are “evolved, biological adaptations” that help us to navigate the world around us.
This, of course, does not mean that individuals can remain completely oblivious to the facts and still expect to make informed decisions, but rather than shortcuts and cues in our day-to-day life often fill in the gaps we need to make a reasoned choice. For example, Lupia and McCubbins write in their book “The Democratic Dilemma” that “reasoned choice does not require full information or unlimited attention. Instead, reasoned choice requires information that generates accurate predictions about the choice.” And some scholars, for example David Redlawk and Rick Lau, show that heuristics might benefit more informed voters.
What you’ve said here expresses the PRECISE reason why I feel I’ve so much difficulty making voting decisions – it’s become too apparent that to make a truly informed choice would require me to study economics, social issues, law, etc.
System 2 thinking, is likely part of it (See: Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) but there are really a whole host of reasons why people continue to believe the things they do despite easily available evidence to the contrary. Much of the refusal to adopt a belief that conflicts with one that’s previously held is how close to a person’s “central world view” the topic is. The closer the topic is to that person’s most deeply rooted beliefs/identity, the more resistant to change that belief is. Further, the way in which contrary evidence is provided also matters. Simply responding to a person’s opinions with a list of facts is largely ineffective. In fact, in those cases where this tactic is utilized, some research suggests that people will double down on their previously held belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Some of this is a psychological coping mechanism – a way for a person to protect his her identity and/or ego. What if you discovered that one of your most deeply held beliefs, that helps form your identity, is suddenly proven incorrect. That’s a really difficult thing to have to work through psychologically for some people. Denying is a way to protect ourselves and to conserve cognitive resources.
For more on the stuff I mentioned after Kahneman, check out The Debunking Handbook for a concise explanation of some of these topics.
This is a really complex issue and one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to as brief an explanation as I’ve provided (I’m sure I haven’t done it justice). Also, sorry for the terrible formatting and rambling. I’m on mobile.
Thanks for doing an AMA! Is there any research on whether people are more or less likely to change their beliefs when confronted with a person outside their “group.” (For example, someone against gay marriage having a discussion with someone who is gay).
DB: There is a large research literature in this, mostly in psychology, on this. The hypothesis is called the “contact hypothesis.” There’s a great review of this and other research on prejudice reduction by Paluck and Green here: http://www.cscc.edu/about/faculty/pd/files/Paluck%20-%20Prejudice%20Reduction.pdf. My view, which is similar to theirs, is that there is much less evidence on this question than many assume. It’s difficult to just look out into the world and see whether people who have, e.g., gay friends, are more supportive of gay marriage. That might just be because people who are okay with gay people are more likely to become their friends in the first place! There’s hundreds of psychology lab experiments on the topic, where undergraduates have a brief experience in the basement of a psychology department and claim their mind has changed a few minutes or days later. But research in the field – where people actually meet and get to know members of an outgroup – is a lot more rare.
There are a few studies, though, that I think are particularly interesting on this:
- Green and Wong did a study with the folks at Outward Bound (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Amir_Goren/publication/255589987_Shallow_cues_with_deep_effects_Trait_judgments_from_faces_and_voting_decisions/links/551017f40cf2752610a1dd1f.pdf#page=241) where they found that going on multi-week camping trips with African-Americans made children more supportive of some policies designed to reduce racial inequality. But the study is small, as the authors say. This one is begging to be replicated.
- I recently came across this paper by David Schindler, which exploits variation in Britain in where people came into contact with army troops of color. They find long-run effects. https://www.cesifo-group.de/de/dms/ifodoc/docs/Akad_Conf/CFP_CONF/CFP_CONF_2015/cemir15-Poutvaara/Papers/cemir15_Westcott.pdf.
There’s also a couple studies that I think should make one less confident in the contact hypothesis:
- Ryan Enos did an ingenious experiment (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/10/3699.full) where he randomly assigned some people riding trains into Boston to have some Latinx riders join them for the ride, as if they had moved to their neighborhood. He finds that people on these trains became more anti-immigration. This suggests contact might even have the opposite effect, producing threat and feelings of hostility, even when there isn’t any kind of “competition” going on. For a real-world example of this effect in action, check out this by the WSJ: http://www.wsj.com/articles/places-most-unsettled-by-rapid-demographic-change-go-for-donald-trump-1478010940.
- In our study in Science we found that non-transgender canvassers could be effective. So even if contact with outgroups works sometimes, I am pretty sure it is not the only tactic that can work.
As you can tell, I think how to reduce prejudice is a fascinating question – and one where we don’t have nearly enough clear answers and what works, why, and when.
I’m curious about the value/purpose of the standard debate in politics. I’ve always wondered why we force candidates into a situation where they end up having to aggressively talk over each other in order to save face in front of the nation and nothing is ultimately gained. Wouldn’t it make more sense to interview them individually and perhaps ask a series of relevant skill testing questions, their answers to which the nation could use to judge their merit? Is it because that wouldn’t be interesting enough to draw attention?
YK: The value of the debate for many political scientists is questionable. Given that people (as a number of questions in this AMA have rightly suggested!) are skilled at dismissing and ignoring the information that they disagree with, it is difficult to imagine that people are going to be persuaded by anything that happens at the debate. Some scholars have seen some post-debate shifts among certain groups of voters (for example, Hillygus and Jackman’s 2003 piece on decision-making in the 2000) election, but arguably responses to the debate may be based on more than just the facts discussed (Jamie Druckman shows this in his paper on debate winners): There is also some research that suggests that the actual debate – candidates arguing and fighting – may lead people to either mistrust or retreat from politics. In some of her work Diana Mutz shows that political debates – especially if they are “uncivil” – can have negative effects on people.
In our book, Samara Klar and I suggest that seeing argumentative politics makes people want to hide their partisanship and pretend to be independents.
So, I think some of this points to the idea that debates aren’t actually all that helpful.
On the other hand, its possible that debates are “exciting” – which makes more people tune in just to see the spectacle, which helps people learn something about politics. So, this may be a silver lining of the combative debate.
Thanks for coming!
In my opinion the polarization of people in our bipartisan system has lead to a lot of voters who are unable to objectively consider the information being directed at them by both parties. The “us vs them” mentality of social identity theory and confirmation bias lead to beliefs in objectively absurd things even passing consideration and research could prove or disprove. Would this be a statement you agree with and if so what other factors contribute to this issue and do you see a way forward with a more productive dialog? If you disagree with it, what do you think the causes of the animosity are and what could be done to lessen the party animosity to increase intelligent voting and discussion in the future?
SK: Thanks for the question! Americans are deeply committed to their party identification and many equate party ID to a type of social identity. (Examples here and here just to name a couple of many.) As the question asker, states, social identity theory tells us that individuals view their in-group as a reflection of themselves and are thus motivated to evaluate their in-group positively and out-groups negatively. This in-group vs. out-group in politics can indeed lead Americans to unduly derogate the other party.
There are instances, though, where partisan adversaries can become less, for lack of a better word, adversarial. The Common In-Group Identity Model suggests that cueing a superordinate identity can unite rival groups. For example, Dr. Matthew Levendusky at the University of Pennsylvania finds that priming Democrats and Republicans to think of themselves all as Americans can unite the two groups. In ongoing research with Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, I am finding that Americans are more tolerant of members of the opposing party when those individuals are not politically active. In other work I’ve done, I have found that bringing Democrats and Republicans together in face-to-face groups to allow for inter-personal discussion actually leads to more moderate and bipartisan policy preferences. So there are certainly moderating circumstance that can temper group rivalry between the two parties, at least within the mass public.
YK: There are number of factors that lead people to stick by their political beliefs even in the face of facts. People often rely on confirmatory biases, which means that they are really good at dismissing and discrediting facts that are contrary to their views. Even when the information seems totally factual, people still can find a way to ignore it. But possibly the biggest factor may be when the incorrect fact is pivotal to someone’s worldview. So, if their opinion is based on misinformation, the misinformation becomes a key component of an opinion. As Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler show once the misinformation is part of an opinion, it is very hard to correct it.