Liberals and conservatives who are polarized on certain politically charged subjects become more moderate when reading political arguments in a difficult-to-read font, researchers report in a new study. Likewise, people with induced bias for or against a defendant in a mock trial are less likely to act on that bias if they have to struggle to read the evidence against him.
... subtle manipulations that affect how people take in information can reduce political polarization.
Liberals and conservatives who read the argument in an easy-to-read font were much more polarized on the subject than those who had to slog through the difficult version.
The study is the first to use difficult-to-read materials to disrupt what researchers call the "confirmation bias," the tendency to selectively see only arguments that support what you already believe, Preston said. And it is the first to show that the intervention can moderate both deeply held political beliefs as well as newly formed biases, she said.
"We showed that if we can slow people down, if we can make them stop relying on their gut reaction -- that feeling that they already know what something says -- it can make them more moderate; it can have them start doubting their initial beliefs and start seeing the other side of the argument a little bit more," Hernandez said.
Two other techniques foster political moderation,
Researchers report that simply answering three "why" questions on an innocuous topic leads people to be more moderate in their views on an otherwise polarizing political issue.
The researchers used techniques known to induce an abstract mindset in people, Preston said. Previous studies had shown that asking people to think broadly about a subject (with "why" rather than "how" questions, for example) makes it easier for them to look at an issue from different perspectives.
" 'Why' questions make people think more in terms of the big picture, more in terms of intentions and goals, whereas more concrete 'how' questions are focused on something very specific, something right in front of you, basically," Preston said.
"We observed that liberals and conservatives became more moderate in their attitudes," she said. "After this very brief task that just put them in this abstract mindset, they were more willing to consider the point of view of the opposition."
The researchers conducted a third experiment online to test the effects in a more diverse population. In this round, they asked participants to read an ambiguous "faux Yahoo! News" article that included multiple arguments for and against the Islamic center.
Those who viewed the article in an easy-to-read format remained polarized in their views, the researchers found. But those who read the same article after it had been photocopied and made harder to read were more moderate in their responses.
Making the information harder to read induced abstract thinking, Preston said.
"It's a surprisingly powerful manipulation because people are thinking in a different way and putting in more mental effort while reading," she said. [emphasis mine]