How to Argue About Politics: Just Ask Questions

Turns out that you can convince people to moderate their positions by asking them to explain the issue. This paper isn’t quite “new”, but it’s new to me – published only in 2013 by Fernbach, Rogers, Fox, and Sloman.  The trick is not to ask people to give reasons for their policy preferences, but instead to ask them to mechanistically explain the underlying problem and how their preferred policy would work.  The authors’ interpretation, which makes perfect sense to me, is that extremism in ordinary citizens is often rooted in a high degree of false confidence that the speaker understands the issue.  Asking them to explain it in depth causes the speaker to rethink exactly how well they understand the issue, and accordingly moderate their opinions.

Some caveats: the treatment effect is not very large and it’s not clear how generalizable it is.  The study relied on asking participants to actually write out their beliefs.  In the context of a discussion, especially one where the participants might be devoting less attention or coming in with a more adversarial attitude, this might not work.

However, this is an interesting idea with positive consequences for democracy that deserves more study.  It does suggest that there is a real moderating role for discussion, and that argument does not simply push people into more extreme positions.  Instead, by asking people to explain their ideas and treating them non-confrontationally, you can cause them to believe and act more moderately. It’s nice when instrumental interests – getting people to change minds – line up nicely with our normative beliefs about how discussions ought to be conducted. Next time you have a political argument, perhaps give this a try.  Rather than engaging, or pushing your agenda, just ask questions about what he think is going on.  Probe your counterpart’s understanding of the issue.  It will not only lead to a less heated and more congenial discussion, but just might make a dent in their opinions.


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