A provocative title from a known political liberal–but consider the research before you discount this–and remember that this works on cranky liberals and all sides of the political spectrum where thoughtless opinion (“the overproduction of opinionated opinion” according to Albert Hirschman–the definition of blogging ?) fills the air. The University of Colorado study, “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding,” conducted by Phillip Fernbach and a research team.
How does it work? Here is the process that researchers asked participants to follow:
- State your position on an issue: gun control, climate change, etc.
- Rate your understanding of the issue on a 7 point scale
- Tell us everything you know, linking understanding and explaining causal relationships
- Reiterate your understanding on a 7 point scale, restate your position
The key: Asking people to carefully consider step 3 tends to avoid them playing the advocacy role for their position, pushing them, perhaps, into a explanatory role rather than a defensive one.
For wing nuts and their many fellow travelers, however, there is a serious obstacle, and it goes by the name of “motivated reasoning.” When people have a strong emotional attachment to their initial convictions, they tend to heap ridicule on anything that runs counter to those convictions and to give a lot of weight to anything that supports them.
Motivated reasoning helps to account for two defining characteristics of wing nuts and their fellow travelers: a readiness to attack people’s good faith, rather than their actual arguments, and an eagerness to make the worst, rather than the best, of opposing positions.