Both Republicans and Democrats become less polarized after a simple magic trick

Photo: Mostphotos
Photo: Mostphotos

Psychology researchers from Lund University in Sweden, McGill University in Canada, and Royal Holloway in the UK, have found that a magic trick can lead Democrats and Republicans alike to believe that they are more open-minded towards opposing presidential candidates than they thought they were.

The American voters who took part in the experiment were willing to endorse more open views with surprisingly little intervention

The political climate in the U.S. is becoming increasingly polarized, and disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has reached record levels. This can lead to fear and animosity between people of opposing political camps.

“Polarization can actually impair peoples’ critical thinking and bias their political decisions”, says Thomas Strandberg, PhD Candidate at Lund University.

People tend to think of political attitudes as deeply rooted and difficult to change. However, the research team has previously demonstrated that it is possible to make people adopt and argue for political opinions that are drastically different from their own.

“In this study, we wanted to see if the same methodology could be used to make people express more openness in their views when comparing the leadership traits of competing presidential candidates” says Jay Olson, PhD Candidate at McGill University and Visiting Fellow at Harvard University.

In the first experiment, the researchers collected data at the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. They asked 136 participants to answer a survey consisting of 12 questions comparing Trump and Clinton on traits like experience, trustworthiness, and analytic ability.

Using a magic trick, the researchers covertly changed most of the participants’ polarized answers closer to the midpoint of the survey scale. This manipulation made it appear as if they had rated Trump and Clinton similarly on these leadership traits. Surprisingly, only a few participants made any changes when asked to explain the rationale behind their manipulated answers.

At the end of the survey, the researchers asked the participants why they had so many moderate scores, and almost all of the participants (94%) rationalized and gave arguments supporting this now more neutral profile. For example, one Trump supporter claimed, “I guess I fall somewhere in the middle — I’d like to think I’m a little moderate. I think at this point it’s important to be open-minded.” Others claimed to be moderate because of how their parents raised them, or because they needed to be unbiased in their line of work, even though they reported more polarized views moments earlier. Immediately after the experiment, participants were debriefed about the purpose of the study and the method involved.

In a second experiment, they replicated the study online with nearly 500 participants, and found no difference in results between Clinton and Trump supporters. The majority of the participants were susceptible to the manipulation and rationalized their ostensibly moderate responses.

“Political surveys aim to capture the attitudes of the public, but our research demonstrates that these are in fact highly malleable and context-sensitive. In this study, we show that this malleability applies equally to both Democrats and Republicans”, states Petter Johansson, Principal Investigator of the study and Researcher at Lund University Cognitive Science.

“These results offer hope in a divided political climate: even polarized people can become — at least momentarily — open to opposing views”, he concludes.

Publication: Depolarizing American voters: Democrats and Republicans are equally susceptible to false attitude feedback

Thomas Strandberg, Lund University Cognitive Science, Sweden
thomas [dot] strandberg [at] lucs [dot] lu [dot] se