Here’s a question. What can lead to some common ground between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum on a polarizing issue? Things like raising the retirement age for social security or putting a merit-based pay system for teachers into effect.
A new study entitled “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding,” is published in the journal Psychological Science. The results suggest that simply asking people to demonstrate some knowledge on a polarizing issue can have a moderating effect on their viewpoint. Democrats, Republicans, as well as Independents were among the 198 U.S. residents who participated in the study.
The report is preceded by something Clint Eastwood told Time in 2005. "Extremism is so easy. You've got your position and that's it. It doesn't take much thought."
In one portion of the study, participants were asked to rank several polarizing issues on a scale from “strongly against” to “strongly in favor.” At that point, they were asked to rate their level of understanding on the issue and then to "provide a mechanistic explanation" for the policy. After assessing their level of knowledge and providing the detailed explanation, participants were once again asked to rate the issue on the same scale; "strongly against" to "strongly in favor."
The result? According to the study, "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.”
Translation: extreme positions tend to become not-quite-so extreme once people reflect on how knowledgeable they are on the topic.
In the end, the researchers posit that their research "suggests one simple way to induce moderation, asking them to explain their positions mechanistically."