Press "Enter" to skip to content

The political extremism could rely on the illusion of understanding

A team of researchers from the University of Harvard, in a recent article, has come to the conclusion that the political polarization may rely on an illusion of understanding: that is to say, the people believe that they understand well the policies, when in fact your understanding of them is poor.

To reach this conclusion, researchers conducted three experiments. In the first experiment, the authors recruited 198 americans, representing all political trends of the united states. The subjects were presented with six complex policies (such as unilateral sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, or the increase of the retirement age), and were asked to express their opinion on these policies using a numerical scale from 1 to 7 (1: “strongly against”, 7: “strongly in favor”). After an assessment of your level of support for the policies they were asked, also with a numerical scale of 7 points, to assess the one they felt was their level of understanding of these policies.

Once evaluated their level of support and their level of understanding perceived, the subjects were asked to explain the policies presented. More specifically, the researchers asked the subjects to describe

all the details you know about …., going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps. That is, your explanation should state precisely how each step causes the next step in one continuous chain from start to finish. In other words, try to tell as complete a story as you can, with no gaps.

(the ellipses were completed with the policy in question).

Once the subject completed the task of offering an explanation, again were asked to evaluate their level of understanding and their level of support for the policies. The authors observed a significant decrease in the level of understanding, accompanied by a decrease also significant level of support expressed to the policies presented. According to the authors, the attempts of individuals to offer a complete and detailed explanation of the complex policies had the effect of reducing the level of certainty they claimed to possess on the topics, which in turn wore them to express points of view more moderate.

In the second experiment, the researchers wanted to see if there is any change in the political attitude if, instead of asking individuals to explain policies (detailing its mechanism of operation), they were asked to provide reasons for supporting or not the policies. And that is to offer reasons why one supports or rejects a certain policy does not necessarily imply the ability to explain how policy works: you can provide reasons based on a rule, a value or a feeling.

Thus, we recruited 141 participants were introduced to the topics and were asked to express their level of understanding and their level of support. Some of the participants were invited to provide an explanation of the policy, while others asked them to offer, in the most complete way possible, the reasons for supporting or not the policies.

The researchers found that giving reasons decreased slightly the level of understanding perceived, but not varied the degree of support expressed, unlike what happened when the subjects were in the obligation to provide an explanation of the issues.

Finally, the authors wanted to check whether changes in the levels of understanding and support expressed by the subjects would have their reflection in concrete political action, such as donating funds to a platform of support for the policies.

To do this, in the third experiment, we used 101 subjects, and they were subjected to the same procedures as in experiment two (assessment of the understanding and support before and after providing an explanation of the policy, or the reasons for the support or rejection expressed). In addition, participants were told that they would receive an amount of extra money, they could do one of the following things: a) donate the money to a platform in favor of the policy assessed; (b) donate the money to a platform against the policy assessed; (c) retain the money; (d) reject the extra payment.

What they found the researchers was that for those participants who held extreme positions initial to the policies, the attempt to generate an explanation of the same not only had the effect of moderating his position, but also decreased the likelihood to make a donation. In contrast, for those participants who had to provide reasons increased the likelihood of making donations.

The study team from Harvard is interesting because of its implications, which we mention in your article. There are a large number of studies shows that the attitudes to extreme policies that are often autoreforzarse, thanks to phenomena such as the processing biased information and the tendency of people to maintain relationships with other people with their same positions. All these findings may lead us to think that the polarization is inevitable and persistent. But the results of the study suggest that there is a simple and direct way to induce moderation: ask the people who try to explain their positions in a manner that is consistent and complete.

As the authors say, their findings offer additional support to the research of the call deliberative democracy. According to this conception of democracy, the fundamental thing is not the vote, but the free discussion of public affairs, with the intention that rational discussion can provide citizens with the opportunity to improve the understanding of the policies and, therefore, the opportunity to act collectively in an optimal manner. In the light of the study, the discussion would be more productive if it was focused on a discussion mechanistic policies, based on the explanation of the same, rather than to offer reasons for or against. In the words of the authors:

The present results suggest that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engage in substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in a more customary superficial debate about preferences and positions.