Dangerously Rigid Political Opinions Can be Changed: Here is One Approach

Extreme opinions are one of the thorniest issues when it comes to trying to solve problems and the necessary “difficult conversations” required. But related to extreme opinions are rigid opinions; that is, those people who hold firm opinions from which they will not waiver. They are convinced that they are correct and will not listen or engage in communication designed to solve problems or result in integrative solutions to.

A recent study in the journal Psychological Science (2013) found that those who hold extremely rigid opinions often support those opinions by the illusion of understanding. These people believe that they understand things better than they actually do. The study examined how much people really understood a particular policy or issue, and the extent to which the rigidity of their opinions contributed to polarization. The authors then predicted that asking subjects in the experiment to explain political issues would make them aware of how poorly they actually understood issues and hence they would subsequently moderate their opinions. We will get to the results of the study in a moment. But first it’s important to say something about extreme opinions and their deleterious effects on the political process. Polarization, or the increased perceived distances between people’s political opinions and the resulting paralysis with respect to problem-solving, is a serious problem.

After Obama was elected president Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate declared that the only agenda for him was to make sure the president did not succeed. If we take this statement seriously it means that this elected official will subject himself to no communication that upsets his belief system. He has made decisions about where he stands and will not subject them to any decision-making processes to the contrary. This is not much different than the religious Muslim or Orthodox Jew who has a comprehensive worldview and will not depart from it.

Rigid opinions are capable of inciting violence. Such opinions are usually accompanied by intense belief that includes emotions and justifies strong reactions. We can see this operating when politicians or religious people use the “politics as a war” metaphor. It codes into the discourse all of the language of war including the fact that your adversary is your “enemy” and he or she must be “vanquished”. So political leaders have enemies lists and incorporate all of the aggressive and clandestine language associated with such lists. Our culture is filled with individuals, journalists, and talk show hosts characterized by combative personalities who are more rigid than extreme.

Throughout the 1980s conservatives made considerable progress by maligning liberals and turning the word “liberal” into a shibboleth used to attack democrats. Again, I’m less concerned about the content of a political opinion that I am its fixed nature. An opinion becomes extreme and dangerous when it cannot be moderated or there is no sense of perspective and proportion. Politics is not warfare; in fact, it is the antidote to warfare. Politics and communication with those who are unlike you is the alternative to warfare. It is the only consequential and morally legitimate means of solving problems and avoiding violence.

So what did the authors of the study referred to above discover? Interestingly, they found that those people with particularly strong opinions were unjustified in their confidence with respect to how thoroughly they actually understood policies. Very simply, they understood policies and political positions considerably less than they thought. When subjects in the experiment were asked to produce what are termed “mechanistic explanations” they were exposed to their ignorance and thereby moderated their opinions. Mechanistic explanations are explanations about how things actually work such as legal positions and social policies. When subjects in the study were simply asked to list the reasons that they supported something they were less likely to be influenced by their own lack of knowledge and did not moderate their positions. The assumption is that asking someone to list the reasons for supporting or not supporting a political position allows them to tap into values and general principles that do not require much knowledge and are more fundamental emotional attachments.

It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal (to continue the war metaphor) that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.


Posted on July 8, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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