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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Extreme Political Attitudes May Stem From an Illusion of Understanding (Amanda Mikulak)

One of the great, tragic paradoxes of our age - the most aggressive people, the ones most likely to seize positions of influence through charm and confidence are among the least likely to really know what the hell they're doing.  Yeah, they make money and build brand, but they leave a trail of corpses in their wakes.  Oops, must be their fault, carry on.
They will, of course, disagree with me.  They'll say that avoidable problems like Ipperwash, Walkerton, Project Orange, ORNGE, vikileaks, "political truths", fired domestic workers and hired foreign workers and any political scandal ending in "gate" are mistakes that other people make, not them. 
Yeah, well my grandpa was a bomber pilot and he always told himself it would be someone else who got shot down, but that's not how it worked out, did it?
Politics is tribal - it pushes us into us and them categories and tricks us into emotional positions which we then delude ourselves into believing are fact-based. 
Until we become conscious of this fact - that we are, each of us emotional creatures that must work to be factual, we're trapped.

Extreme Political Attitudes May Stem From an Illusion of Understanding

Having to explain how a political policy works leads people to express less extreme attitudes toward the policy, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The research suggests that people may hold extreme policy positions because they are under an illusion of understanding — attempting to explain the nuts and bolts of how a policy works forces them to acknowledge that they don’t know as much about the policy as they initially thought.
Psychological scientist Philip Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder and his co-authors were interested in exploring some of the factors that could contribute to what they see as increasing political polarization in the United States.
“We wanted to know how it’s possible that people can maintain such strong positions on issues that are so complex — such as macroeconomics, health care, foreign relations — and yet seem to be so ill-informed about those issues,” says Fernbach.
Drawing on previous research on the illusion of understanding, Fernbach and colleagues speculated that one reason for the apparent paradox may be that voters think they understand how policies work better than they actually do.
In their first study, the researchers asked participants taking an online survey to rate how well they understood six political policies, including raising the retirement age for Social Security, instituting a national flat tax, and implementing merit-based pay for teachers. The participants were randomly assigned to explain two of the policies and then asked to re-rate how well they understood the policies.
As the researchers predicted, people reported lower understanding of all six policies after they had to explain them, and their positions on the policies were less extreme. In fact, the data showed that the more people’s understanding decreased, the more uncertain they were about the position, and the less extreme their position was in the end.
The act of explaining also affected participants’ behavior. People who initially held a strong position softened their position after having to explain it, making them less likely to donate bonus money to a related organization when they were given the opportunity to do so.
Importantly, the results affected people along the whole political spectrum, from self-identified Democrats to Republicans to Independents.
According to the researchers, these findings shed light on a psychological process that may help people to open the lines of communication in the context of a heated debate or negotiation.
“This research is important because political polarization is hard to combat,” says Fernbach. “There are many psychological processes that act to create greater extremism and polarization, but this is a rare case where asking people to attempt to explain makes them back off their extreme positions.”
In addition to Fernbach, co-authors include Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School; Craig R. Fox of the University of California, Los Angeles; and Steven A. Sloman of Brown University.
For more information about this study, please contact: Philip M. Fernbach at
The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 or

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