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.
by Scott Winship