To change attitudes, don't argue —— agree, extremely

by Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times

What if the best way to change minds isn't to tell people why they're wrong, but to tell them why they're right? Scientists tried this recently and discovered that agreeing with people can be a surprisingly powerful way to shake up strongly held beliefs.

Researchers found that showing people extreme versions of ideas that confirmed - not contradicted - their opinions on a deeply divisive issue actually caused them to reconsider their stance and become more receptive to other points of view. The scientists attribute this to the fact that the new information caused people to see their views as irrational or absurd, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We truly believe that in most intractable conflicts, the real problems are not the real issues," said Eran Halperin, a psychologist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel and an author of the study. In reality, he said, both sides know what needs to be done; however, there are many "psychological barriers that prevent societies from identifying opportunities for peace."

To see if tightly held attitudes could be pried loose, the scientists looked to one of the most polarizing issues on the planet, the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that flared again violently last week. People on both sides hold strong beliefs that make compromise difficult, as years of failed negotiations have proved.

The scientists, led by Halperin's graduate students Boaz Hameiri and Roni Porat, recruited more than 150 Israelis and exposed half of them to video clips that related the conflict with Palestinians back to values that many Israelis hold dear. The other half watched neutral TV commercials and served as a control.

But instead of pointing out how the conflict stood at odds with Israeli values - a common approach in persuasion - the experimental videos illustrated how the conflict was consistent with many participants' beliefs, taken to their extreme limit.

"For example, the fact that they are the most moral society in the world is one of the most basic beliefs of Israeli society," Halperin said. So when the researchers showed participants a video that claimed Israel should continue the conflict so that its citizens could continue to feel moral, people reacted angrily.

"You take people's most basic beliefs and turn them into something that is absurd," Halperin said. "For an outsider, it can sound like a joke, but for them, you are playing with their most fundamental belief."

Although participants did not enjoy watching the clips, after numerous rounds of exposure over a period of months leading up to the 2013 Israeli elections, participants' attitudes softened considerably; they reported almost a 30 percent increase in their willingness to re-evaluate their position compared with participants in the control group and took a more neutral stance on common political narratives like the idea that Palestinians bear responsibility for continuing the conflict. This shift persisted even a year after the study concluded.

In addition, when the election rolled around, more people exposed to the so-called paradoxical thinking experiment reported voting for moderate parties - those that favor conciliatory measures like evacuating some Israeli settlements in the West Bank - suggesting the intervention led not just to changed attitudes, but also to changed behavior.

Traditional approaches for dislodging strongly held attitudes have proved stubbornly ineffective; numerous studies have shown that confronting people with information that challenges their beliefs often has no effect at all, or even strengthens their initial position.

But in this study paradoxical thinking seemed to encourage some people to privately re-evaluate their strongly held beliefs or political narratives, authors said. It may succeed precisely because it sneaks through the psychological security system that protects our deepest beliefs from inconsistent information without tripping the alarm.

The scientists say the method needs further validation in the lab, and they noted several glaring issues that made applying it to real-world situations difficult.

For one, there was the "motivation problem": How do you get people to watch videos they find disturbing? Outside of a lab setting, nothing would force people to sit through more than one or two clips, which probably wouldn't produce the same effects found in the study, Halperin said.

There is also a risk of backfire - some people in the study took the videos at face value, assimilating the extreme messages into their personal beliefs. And, of course, nothing would stop governments or organizations from employing the same technique to promote their own agendas.

In fact, because the people who receive the paradoxical information know nothing about its intended purpose - an integral component to the method's very success - the approach treads into ethically questionable territory.

"We are not supposed to fool participants," said Gavriel Salomon, a psychologist at the University of Haifa who was not involved in the study. "But the paradoxical approach is still open to ethical debate."

Halperin, however, sees paradoxical thinking as a potentially valuable tool for promoting peace.

"You can say it's a kind of propaganda," Halperin said, "I just see it differently. We all agree that reducing violence and promoting peace is a good cause."

More information: Paradoxical thinking as a new avenue of intervention to promote peace, PNAS, www.pnas.org/content/early/201… /1407055111.abstract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Beliefs and attitudes can influence reasoning

Jan 23, 2014

In multiple studies investigating how people learn, Dr Matt McCrudden, an Associate Professor in Victoria's Faculty of Education, found that high school and tertiary students of similar age and reading ability were interpreting ...

On the political fringes, feelings of superiority abound

Oct 07, 2013

Ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum are equally likely to believe their opinions are superior to others', but their feelings of superiority emerge for distinct political issues, according to new research published ...

Recommended for you

Mother-daughter research team studies severe-weather phobia

Sep 19, 2014

No one likes severe weather, but for some just the thought of a thunderstorm, tornado, hurricane or blizzard can severely affect their lives. When blood pressures spike, individuals obsessively monitor weather forecasts and ...

Study: Pupil size shows reliability of decisions

Sep 18, 2014

Te precision with which people make decisions can be predicted by measuring pupil size before they are presented with any information about the decision, according to a new study published in PLOS Computational Bi ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

krundoloss
5 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2014
The dark side of religion is that is can separate people, cause them to judge others (even though they teach otherwise), and worst of all, close the persons mind to new ideas. I dislike the fact that religions try to tell you "this is how it is", and you are supposed to take it all on faith, and if you get new information about the world, you are supposed to ignore it and keep on "believing" in the simple ideas and stories that religions teach.

"For example, the fact that they are the most moral society in the world is one of the most basic beliefs of Israeli society,"


Well I bet that makes them feel good about themselves, doesn't it.

I think Israel should be evacuated and nuked, maybe that will end the conflict, because there would be nothing left to fight over.

qquax
5 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2014
This news will not come as a surprise to people like Steven Colbert.
Nik_2213
4.3 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2014
Uh, isn't this a fancy name for satire ??
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (4) Jul 18, 2014
"For an outsider, it can sound like a joke ... reported almost a 30 percent increase in their willingness to re-evaluate".

Using different approaches to attitude should be effective, unless those that are moved by a particular approach are the same that are moved by other such. Many has long maintained that joking, ridiculing, satire et cetera are effective re creationism as everywhere else, as opposed to accommodationism - and you can have jokes and ridicule that seemingly agree - with the upshot that these methods are neither ethically problematic (no inherent lying) nor difficult to apply.
Reg Mundy
1 / 5 (4) Jul 18, 2014
I am going to recommend this thread to the following pedants:-
Cap'n Grumpy
Aunty Irene
Gawphard
Furbrain
etc.
freethinking
2.3 / 5 (6) Jul 18, 2014
Yea, Obama is the greatest leader that ever was or ever will be. Anyone who ever voted for him is the smartest person around. Obama is handling the invasion of the USA southern boarder well. It is great that he and the democrats orchestrated the invasion of illegals. Obama and the democrats are right in using the IRS, the DOJ, and the EPA and other government entities to go after those that disagree with them. Wow, did you see how well he handled the news conference about the Jet that was shot down. It was great that he donated 30 seconds to all the people killed before he started on his jokes and his lies on how well he saved the US economy. He is great at selling guns to drug dealers. He is great at blaming a unknown film maker for a terrorist attack. His support for Israel WOW.

Anyone who votes Democrat the next election, wow what smart people they are for voting for lying, cheating, criminal loving, anti Americans.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2014
"There is also a risk of backfire - some people in the study took the videos at face value, assimilating the extreme messages into their personal beliefs. And, of course, nothing would stop governments or organizations from employing the same technique to promote their own agendas."

I strongly agree...
alfie_null
3 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2014
Yea, Obama is the greatest leader that ever was or ever will be. Anyone who ever voted for him is the smartest person around. . . . yada, yada, yada . . .

You want to be a pundit? I gently suggest you don't quit your day job. You might also want to tune in the previously mentioned Cobert to see how it's done. For extra credit, try to figure out why it will always work better for him than for you.
Sinister1812
3 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2014
This should work on climate change denialtards.
freethinking
1 / 5 (3) Jul 21, 2014
I agree with all you crazy Obama supporting Global warming believers.
Global warming is happening, even though earth has been cooling slightly for the last 14 years.
Yup, polar bears are dying out, even though their numbers are increasing.
Yup, sea levels are rising which is why Profit Al Gore is buying up mansions on nice ocean front property.
Yup Obama and the Democrats health care system is the best, even though less people now have insurance, insurance costs have increased significantly, and oh the money spent (or given away) to his donors who built the wonderful health care website, hey they deserved the money.... so that they could funnel it back to Obama and the Democrats.
And the way Obama and the Democrats have engineered the Boarder crises of babies and criminals flooding the boarder, Wonderful.

You Democrats and Progressives care so much for people as long as you can use them for your purposes.
thefurlong
not rated yet Jul 21, 2014
I am going to recommend this thread to the following pedants:-
Cap'n Grumpy
Aunty Irene
Gawphard
Furbrain
etc.

Reg is referring to http://phys.org/n...ght.html where we gave him a thorough drubbing for his half-cocked, poorly thought out ideas. Notice how he gets so much reprisal because of the way he presents himself as an authority on a subject about which he understands very little. Pay close attention to his identification of numerical calculations as "equations" and on his dismissal of mathematics based physics reasoning as "meaningless equations", despite his avoidance of providing his own MEANINGFUL equations to support his own preposterous claims. Notice, also the risible example of self-awareness failure that is his suggesting we apply the hypothesis of this article to convince him. Admittedly, we could have done that, but then we would be cheating honestly curious laymen out of solid physical reasoning just to convince one crackpot.