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October 22, 2012

The Epistemology of Campaign Attack Ads

Interesting study that looks at how we process political arguments - which tactics make us more receptive to other views and which only make us dig in our heels:

... attack ads work, in large part, because we don’t understand them. Statements take advantage of a fact about human psychology called the “illusion of explanatory depth,” an idea developed by the Yale psychologist Frank Keil and his students. We typically feel that we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works — whether it’s what’s involved in a trade deal with China or how a toilet flushes — that we realize how little we actually know.

In our own research we have found this pattern when people are asked to explain how political policies work. In a forthcoming article in Psychological Science, written with Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and Craig Fox of U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management, we report on experiments showing that people often believe they understand what is meant by well-worn political terms like the “flat tax,” “sanctions on Iran” or “cap and trade” — even when they don’t.

That’s not much of a shocker, of course. The real surprise is what happens after these same individuals are asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.

Interestingly, asking people to justify their position — rather than asking them to explain the mechanisms by which a policy would work — doesn’t tend to soften their political views. When we asked participants to state the reasons they were for or against a policy position, their initial attitudes held firm. (Other researchers have found much the same thing: merely discussing an issue often makes people more extreme, not less.)

Why, then, does having to explain an opinion often end up changing it? The answer may have to do with a kind of revelatory trigger mechanism: asking people to “unpack” complex systems — getting them to articulate how something might work in real life — forces them to confront their lack of understanding.

The challenge in an election season that largely takes place in the form of 30-second advertisements and fire-up-the-base rallies is that rarely is anybody — candidate or voter — asked to explain his or her positions. American political discourse, in short, is not discourse at all.

The Editorial Staff suspect this explains why we enjoy blogging - in the course of the back-and-forth of discussions, we're challenged to explain why we believe what we believe.

Posted by Cassandra at October 22, 2012 07:11 AM

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"The Editorial Staff suspect this explains why we enjoy blogging - in the course of the back-and-forth of discussions, we're challenged to explain why we believe what we believe."

And here I thought it was so your head wouldn't explode.....who knew?

Posted by: Snarkammando at October 22, 2012 03:45 PM