Experimentally manipulated changes to political attitude can last over time

New research has found that providing people with false information about how they answered a political survey can lead to lasting shifts in their attitudes.

The new study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, provides evidence that our political attitudes can be far more flexible than we think.

The study was a follow-up on previous research that had found that people could easily express a moral view about a difficult topic and then endorse the opposite of their previously stated view while being blind to the contradiction.

“The research reported in this article originated in our earlier work observing choice blindness for political attitudes as well as effects of choice blindness on later choices and memories for simpler preferential decisions,” explained study author Thomas Strandberg of Lund University.

“We were interested in testing whether political attitudes could be changed by giving false feedback to participants about their own prior responses. Additionally, this allowed us to visit an underexplored aspect of the choice blindness paradigm: the role of the confabulatory reasoning participants make in support of the false feedback. We hypothesized that if participants form a false belief about a past attitude, then confabulating reasons for that attitude should increase the change observed in their later responses.”

In the study, 140 participants completed a survey to assess their attitudes about various political issues. They then received false feedback about what their actual responses were, before taking a second survey (with new questions) that examined their attitudes regarding the same political issues. One week later, the participants took yet another survey to assess their attitudes about the issues.

The researchers found that about half of false feedback was accepted by the participants as being their own attitudes, and the false feedback strongly influenced the participants future attitudes.

The influence of the false feedback was even stronger when the researchers had the participants explain why they had stated the attitude that had been presented as their own.

“This study contributes to the understanding of how confabulatory reasoning and self-perceptive processes can interact in lasting attitude change. It also highlights how political expressions can be both stable in the context of everyday life, yet flexible when argumentative processes are engaged,” Strandberg told PsyPost.

“Importantly, we tested this using salient political issues, and our participants were often both updated and interested in the current political debate. It is also notable that the effect apply similarly across age, gender, level of education, political awareness, and across the political spectrum.”

The researchers replicated their findings in a second experiment with another 232 participants. But the study — like all research — has some caveats.

“It seems that part of what it might mean to hold a attitude is to be able to draw on memories of having stated that attitude,” Strandberg explained.”However, to fully understand this we would need to study how working memory is affected by choice blindness. Further, we also need to explore the boundaries of the effect, such as measuring longer times frames and what happens to an attitude if the participant is exposed to various kinds of arguments and information.”

“In the current political climate of increasing polarization and ideological hostility, our study shows that people truly have the potential to be flexible in their political views. All that is needed is a way, like choice blindness does, to invite people to reason openly, and unleash their own powers of argumentation,” he added.

“Further, by implementing a self-inferential, constructivist approach to the study of political attitudes, we believe that this research can contribute to the understanding of mass opinion. If you have any questions regarding our research, please feel free to email me at: [email protected]

The study, “False beliefs and confabulation can lead to lasting changes in political attitudes“, was authored by Thomas Strandberg, David Sivén, Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and Philip Pärnamets.