Next Time, Ask Them How Their Policy Works (& Watch Them Become More Malleable)

ask them to explain their beliefs

Have you ever tried to get to bottom of why someone believes “A” over “B” and it just turns into a big mess?

They get emotionally charged, and won’t listen to a lick of criticism from you. Their eyes gloss over, their head shakes back and forth, and they get really expressive.

Conversation, over.

Now I know I’ve been a big proponent of asking questions in political discussions. Instead of statements and fact-wars that only close off people’s minds, you should ask building questions that aim at getting to the foundation of their beliefs.

Well, I have a caveat to that.

Ask questions, definitely don’t stop doing that. But, don’t focus so much on why someone believes “A,” focus instead on getting them to explain how “A” would work. What goes into making that belief work in the real world?

Focus on Getting Them to Explain How the Policy Would Work

According to research on this subject, asking people to explain the interworkings of their policy makes them more malleable and moderate…

“[After asking them to explain how their policy would work] they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.”

I’m all for reducing emotionally charged people.

In a political environment where discourse is lacking, it’s easy to lose track of how deep your understanding doesn’t goes.

Now you will have to be careful with this line of questioning. If you don’t do it right you could wander into backfire effect territory, and then you’re screwed. Don’t throw facts at their face, that’s not what a questions is.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Developed by the Yale psychologist Frank Keil and his students, the idea states that we tend to believe we understand complex problems even when our understanding is superficial. It’s not until we’re asked to explain how it works to realize how shallow our understanding is.

You might argue that labeling China a currency manipulator will help with US trade and exports, but if asked to explain in detail how that would work, you’d realize you’re understanding of the issue is shallow at best.

“…people tend to have knowledge at one level of explanation, and this causes them to mistakenly believe that they have knowledge at the other levels of explanation when they really don’t. This explains why they don’t exhibit the illusion of depth for facts and stories. Facts and stories generally only involve a few causal relations (some facts might not involve any) that can be described at one level of explanation, and thus it’s more difficult to mistakenly believe we have explanatory knowledge that we don’t actually have.”

We humans tend to overstate how much, and how well we know things.

It takes a question about the mechanisms of how it works to nudge us out of that self-blindness.

We Don’t Know as Much as We’d like to Think

Steven Sloman of Brown University, and Philip M. Fernbach of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business offer up a lesson from their research…

“…we voters need to be more mindful that issues are complicated and challenge ourselves to break down the policy proposals on both sides into their component parts. We have to then imagine how these ideas would work in the real world — and then make a choice: to either moderate our positions on policies we don’t really understand, as research suggests we will, or try to improve our understanding.”

Your reaction to the illusion of explanatory depth shouldn’t be to go be a policy nut on every issue.

Instead, constantly remind yourself that you probably don’t know as much about an issue as you think you do.

I know I fall into this mental trap. And it always comes back to bite me in the most inopportune moments.

Ask questions, but split it between finding out why they hold that belief and getting them to explain how it’ll work.

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About John-Pierre Maeli

Keeping it simple and crystal clear, because anything else is useless. I'm here to not only inform you, but to also connect with you. That's what The Political Informer is all about. Feel free to follow me on either Twitter or Google+ Let's talk!

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