Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding

Political extremism (iStock)

The American public and its elected representatives often seem paralyzed by ideological polarization and legislative gridlock. One of the great conundrums of the era remains how, in effect, to de-polarize the electorate. At the individual level, what techniques might best work to moderate positions?

A 2013 study published in Psychological Science explores a central paradox of our politically polarized era: How can people maintain such strong views on complex policy issues that they seldom understand with any sophistication? The researchers, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Harvard Kennedy School, UCLA and Brown, attempted to measure the degree of overconfidence people typically have in their own understanding of the mechanics of how systems and issues work, and to evaluate how the process of explaining their views might moderate extremism.

The study, “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding,” used online techniques to test U.S. citizens on knowledge of policy topics. In the first experiment, about 200 participants were asked to state their positions on a range of policies and assess their own level of knowledge about these issues, which included Iran, health care, Social Security, taxes and cap-and-trade carbon-reduction plans. They were then asked to explain the specific mechanics of how these policies work; after this explanation, they were asked to re-rate their own position, understanding of the policy and level of confidence in their own knowledge.

A second experiment, similar to the first, was undertaken to assess whether participants might change their positions or degrees of certainty based on deeper engagement with issues — or only specifically because they had to explain the mechanistic process. Instead of giving explanations of policies, participants in the second group had to explain reasons for positions. A third experiment asked participants to make certain kinds of political decisions and gave them options to donate to advocacy groups.

The study’s findings include:

  • In the first experiment, participants’ positions became less extreme and more moderate after they were asked to explain the mechanics of how policies work.
  • “Asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies…. Change in understanding correlated with position extremity, such that participants who exhibited greater decreases in reported understanding also tended to exhibit greater moderation of their positions.”
  • In the second experiment — where people were asked to explain their reasons — there was less of an impact on people’s views: “Reductions in rated understanding of policies were less pronounced among participants who enumerated reasons for their positions than among participants who generated causal explanations for them.” This suggests that merely obliging people to give reasons for positions does not moderate their views.
  • The third experiment confirmed that asking people to explain the mechanisms behind policies was the most effective way of getting them to moderate their points of view.

“Across three studies we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies,” the authors write. “Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation undermines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic-explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups.” In sum, making people explain the mechanisms of policies forces them to “confront their own ignorance.”

Related research: A 2013 study from scholars at Yale and UC San Diego calls into question the degree to which partisan views on issues are deeply held. That research suggests the “apparent differences in factual beliefs between members of different parties may be more illusory than real.” The study concludes: “A common feature of American politics is the existence of differences between Democrats and Republicans in survey assessments of factual beliefs. How should those differences be interpreted? One view is that they represent the stark reality of partisan bias, in which Democrats and Republicans perceive different realities. Another possibility, highlighted in this paper, is that differences in survey responses arise because surveys offer partisans low-cost opportunities to express their partisan affinities.”

Keywords: communication, partisanship, political extremism

Last updated: June 5, 2013


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Citation: Philip M. Fernbach; Todd Rogers; Craig R. Fox; Steven A. Sloman. “Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding," Psychological Science, April 2013. doi: 10.1177/0956797612464058.