Humbling wingnuts


Jason Collins


April 11, 2014

I have just read Cass Sunstein’s short collection of essays How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics. It is a decent summary of the behavioural science literature on political bias, although there are few surprises and not a lot of fresh opinion.

The one piece new to me concerned the moderation of people’s views after they are forced to explain their understanding of an issue. The basic story is as follows:

[C]onsider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. …

First, people were asked to state their positions on a series of political issues, including a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, a national flat tax, merit-based pay for teachers and unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. They were asked to describe their position on a seven-point scale whose endpoints were “strongly in favor” and “strongly opposed.”

Second, people were asked to rate their degree of understanding of each issue on a seven-point scale. The third step was the crucial one; they were asked to “describe all the details you know about [for example, the impact of instituting a ‘cap and trade’ system for carbon emissions], going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps.” Fourth, people were asked to rerate their understanding on the seven-point scale and to restate their position on the relevant issue.

The results were stunning. On every issue, the result of requesting an explanation was to persuade people to give a lower rating of their own understanding—and to offer a more moderate view on each issue. In a follow-up experiment, Fernbach and his co-authors found that after being asked to explain their views, people were less likely to want to give a bonus payment to a relevant advocacy group.

Interestingly, Fernbach and his co-authors found no increase in moderation when they asked people not to “describe all the details you know” about the likely effects of the various proposals, but simply to say why they believe what they do. If you ask people to give reasons for their beliefs, they tend to act as their own lawyers or public relations managers, and they don’t move toward greater moderation.

I wonder how long the effect lasts.