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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Changing Hearts and Minds

by Scott Winship
We here at the Strategist pursue objectivity like Star Jones pursues TV cameras. The whole point of the magazine is to – as much as possible – use evidence to adjudicate between competing political strategies, putting our biases on the shelf. Obviously, we feel like there’s not enough objectivity out there among our fellow partisans and that evidence can persuade people to change their minds.
But what if putting our biases on the shelf is extraordinarily difficult? What if opinions are strongly resistant to change? Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook University examine these questions in their new paper, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs” (American Journal of Political Science, July 2006). Their work is sobering, and should be particularly so for Democrats who advocate strategies of “leadership”, “education”, or other approaches intended to change public opinion rather than accommodate it.
Taber and Lodge report a number of fascinating results from experiments they ran using their students as subjects. Subjects were asked to evaluate the strength of different arguments in favor of or against affirmative action or gun control after answering a battery of questions on their political views, including their views on those two issues. The arguments were based on statements by interest groups involved in the policy debate over these issues and edited to ensure that the pro and con versions were equivalent in terms of structure and length.
There was a notable tendency to evaluate more positively arguments that were congruent with one’s position. Subjects spent more time reading the arguments that they were predisposed to disagree with than the arguments that were congruent with their position. And when asked to evaluate the arguments, they criticized the incongruent ones much more often than they did the congruent ones, which they tended to speak well of. The implication the authors draw is that all that extra time spent reading the arguments that contradicted the subject’s view was devoted to poking holes in the arguments.
Students were also asked to evaluate eight out of sixteen possible arguments for or against a policy, which they chose by clicking on one of sixteen boxes to reveal an argument. The only information they had on the arguments was their source – two being organizations in favor of the policy (affirmative action or gun control) and two being opposed organizations. The students were told to seek out information in an unbiased manner so that they could educate other students on the issue. Nevertheless, subjects were more likely to choose arguments (boxes) associated with a source that espoused their own view than arguments from an organization with the opposite view.
Finally, students answered a second battery of questions on affirmative action and gun control. Taber and Lodge found that people generally became even stronger supporters of their original position after completing the experimental tasks. That is, even though the tasks were neutrally presented, these subjects made choices that reinforced their beliefs rather than challenging them, and their beliefs grew even stronger as a result.
An interesting footnote to all of this research is that the patterns were strongest among those students who had the strongest initial beliefs and the most political knowledge. Results for subjects in the bottom third in terms of strength of beliefs or political knowledge were less pronounced and rarely statistically meaningful, though they usually followed the same pattern as for subjects in the upper third.
Taber and Lodge’s paper points to the strong resistance we all have to questioning our beliefs. Anyone who has ever had extended discussions with conservatives trying to get them to concede that people really don’t have equal opportunities in life has experienced this phenomenon first hand. To abandon a belief in equal opportunity would force a complete restructuring of economic conservatives’ politics, if not their entire identity. But liberals and centrists can be just as guilty of self-delusion.
More importantly, if people tend to seek out information, news, and friends who tend to confirm their own beliefs, it will be quite rare for anyone to change their political views in any profound way. That means that political strategies rooted in bringing public opinion around, changing minds, or “leading rather than following” face significant psychological hurdles. This all accords with my own gut belief (bias) that political elites rarely change public opinion; they instead exploit situations where policy doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion. Anti-abortion activists haven’t moved people to the right on abortion; they have groped for restrictions that bring abortion policy more in line with public preferences (e.g., no partial-birth abortion, no public funding, etc.). There remains solid majority support for the Roe v. Wade decision, and no amount of framing will alter that.
This question of how malleable attitudes are couldn’t be more important – if accommodating moderates continually moves the median voter ever rightward, then center-left strategies need to be rethought. But if parties don’t change public opinion, there’s no basis for the claim that Republicans can simply keep moving the “middle” in their direction. On this question itself, all of us must strive to overcome our own psychological barriers to seeing the world clearly.

2 comments on “Changing Hearts and Minds

  1. Chris Glaze on

    There’s a big problem with the direct application of this study to the question of leadership (perhaps dovetails with above comment) and that’s the relatively short time scale. Many may hold stubborn opinions in the context of an isolated experiment, but try exposing them to weeks and months of a message repeated through the media. What about strategies on the scale of years? Decades? The same authors, in a 2005 paper (“The Automaticity of Affect for Political Leaders, Groups, and Issues: An Experimental Test of the Hot Cognition Hypothesis” in Political Psychology), do consider this scale in a fairly standard memory model, namely, in positing “long-term memory” (LTM) stores as the source of these automatic, impervious reactions. But how do voters get this LTM to begin with? Is LTM itself, the source of affect-laden judgments, open to persuasion? The authors do not address this question in the 2006 study. They simply address the LTM->short-term memory (STM) relationship, but do not actually test STM->LTM (although they do speculate). Several searches through Academic Premier on this question have proved fruitless, but I’d love to see some. I imagine it would be difficult to test, especially because it would have to be longitudinal and require control over some pretty slippery variables. But, as the Lodge and Taber say in their 2005 paper, “political beliefs, feelings, intentions, and actions will, if repeatedly associated, become interconnected in a network of interdependencies…”. I don’t think anyone argues that opinions are set in stone. Even the brains of adults are open to new associations on an ongoing basis, one reason why the media have so much influence and the Republican ideology machine has been effective.
    As I’m sure you are aware, the history of social science is riddled with contradictory studies. A textbook example is the infamous Hawthorne study on worker productivity in the early 1930s in which the study itself increased productivity (because workers knew they were being watched) and led the researchers down a garden path. Another more relevant example comes from cognitive psychology: Many studies (e.g. Kahneman and Tversky) have shown that humans show systematic biases when evaluating economic tradeoffs. But follow-up studies (e.g. by Berd Gigerenzer) have challenged these conclusions because the previous research asked subjects to evaluate probabilities. The newer studies uses similar designs, but presented subjects with raw frequencies instead, and found that they were considerably more rational in their decision-making. This is an ongoing debate in the literature on heuristics and human judgment, but suffice to say that the data, as a whole, provide a much more complicated picture of judgment than what a single plot of choice versus expected return would suggest. Kahneman gives a good review in “A Perspective on Judgement and Choice” in American Psychologist, 2003. Human behavior is very difficult to explain and predict with the same confidence and accuracy one often sees in other disciplines, and I would strongly recommend that strategists not rely too heavily on this kind of literature, at least in isoloation.
    In any case, I doubt any would claim the ability to change the mind of an anti-abortion activist, but that’s not the main issue. Here’s an honest question: suppose the Democratic Party chose to oppose stem-cell research and campaigned on the issue over several cycles. How do you think that would influence discussion of the topic in the media and general public opinion? Suppose the vast majority of Democratic leaders had continued to support the current administration’s Iraq policy in lock step. How different would public opinion be today?

  2. ssachs on

    I think this post really gets at a very important, but in many cases flawed, assumption that underlies many of the online discussions regarding strategy: namely, that changing people’s minds is relatively easy, and all we need to do is get a good ground operation together, or frame the debate properly, or what-not. No doubt many of these tactics are extremely valuable, but I think they are largely useful at energizing our base, or perhaps getting some centrists to side with us momentarily, but they are not necessarily useful in making new people into diehard Democrats in large numbers.
    After reading some interesting pieces by Chris Bowers and Chris Hayes (at In these times) about a year ago, I spent some time looking into what have been variably called “ideological conversion machines” or “ideological state apparatuses” (the latter is the term used by Leo Althusser, the sociologist who originally theorized about these institutions.) These are institutions which have the tendency to change people’s ideology, or system of belief. These institutions include the media, schools, family, unions, and religious groups.
    I believe that Republican dominance today can be largely explained in terms of the growing conservative control over many ideological conversion machines. For Democrats to make long-lasting political gains, they need to create their own ideological conversion machines, or pry the existing ones loose from conservative hands.
    In some ways, there’s nothing much new about this theory. Online diatribes about the religious right and conservative media are a dime a dozen.
    On the other hand, this theory does provide us a new way to look at issues like the Kentucky River case before the NLRB: this case is not about the minute issue of who will be counted as a supervisor under NLRA, it is a right-wing bid to weaken one of the most powerful ideological conversion machines working in favor of the liberal movement, that is, labor unions.
    Moreover, it gives us some concepts of the relative merit of various expenditures (supposing that “we”, the liberal movement, can decide en masse how to spend our money – to think!) For example, is it better to spend $2 million to organize a 2,000 person labor union in central Ohio, or $2 million to fund a Democratic congressional campaign in the same area? Better to register voters, or to plant a few liberal churches in areas where religious liberals are looking for a home? Better to advertise on Hispanic TV, or fund Hispanic student groups on college campuses?
    I do not believe that it would be effective, or even morally proper, for Democratic organizations to attempt to create or control ideological conversion machines on a large scale. But Democrats cannot ignore the developments in these areas, either. The contested election for the Teamsters leadership, the success or failure of the Ohio restoration project, and the trajectory of various bills to strip liberal professors of their free speech rights (to name only a few developments in these areas), are just as important to Democratic success in 10 years as is the 50-state strategy.


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