Politics and Emotions: What Would it Take To Change Your Mind?
When it comes to your politics, what would it take to shift your position? Are you stone cold committed to the end, or will you flex your stance to accommodate new information or a shift in circumstances? Where you stand on the political spectrum may provide some interesting insights into how likely it is that you would consider a new policy, and what it would take to persuade you.
As Americans, we tend to view an unwavering commitment to one’s position as a universally positive thing, don’t we? Strength of belief and ideology is praised. But what if that means rejecting compromise? What if it means a rigid adherence to a faulty position?
Understanding how people form their positions, and how those positions may be influenced or changed, can provide vital information, especially in politics or in the case of long-term, intractable conflict. No matter how much we think our positions are based on solid reason, a recent study shows that emotions, especially for some of us, play a vital role in shaping and shifting our ideologies.
How They Did It
Researchers in Tel Aviv, Israel wanted to examine the relationship between ideology and emotional processes in the context of intergroup conflict. Given the right circumstances, would emotions influence a shift in one’s stance? Was one group—rightists or leftists—more likely to be swayed by their emotions?
They designed a study that would look at groups of Israeli rightists and leftists, and how likely each group was to change their position after particular emotions had been intentionally evoked. Are leftists more likely to be influenced by emotional factors than rightists? And if so, what difference does it make?
While the terms “leftist” and “rightist” in an Israeli context may loosely match up with our American versions, it’s important to note a few nuances. For example, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rightists are associated with being rigid and pro-conflict, as well as “facilitating hostile intergroup attitudes, support for violence, and the rejection of conciliatory measures.”1 Leftists, however, are seen as more tolerant, open to ambiguity and supportive of compromise.
The researchers conducted six separate mini studies. In each, using fabricated scenarios having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, researchers sought to induce a particular emotion, such as empathy, anger, despair or fear. Then they measured how this induced emotion influenced participants’ political beliefs, namely their support for compromise or other conciliatory policies. If a leftist experienced empathy, what impact would it have on his or her ideology? Would despair change a rightist’s mind?
In the study used to induce empathy, for example, researchers presented participants with a short text about a boy from the West Bank who aspires to be a soccer player. But when an aggressive tumor is found in his leg, his parents have to tell him he will never play soccer again. Following the reading, participants were then asked about support for pro-peace policies.
“In all of these cases, we hypothesized that changes in emotion would be associated with changes in policy support mostly among leftists, whereas rightists would remain rigid in their policy support regardless of levels of experienced emotion,” explained the researchers.2
This study built upon some interesting prior findings about rightists and leftists. For example, research has already shown that, in general, it’s harder to sway the ideology of a conservative, than a liberal. Rightists remain rigid whereas leftists are more likely to adapt their stance as necessary, or to fit with their ideology. In this study, researchers wanted to look directly at how emotional forces influenced beliefs across the spectrum.
What They Found
The results of the six mini-studies showed that, as predicted, once conservatives have their stance, they are unmoving. So if you’re trying to gain rightists’ support for a policy outside of their fixed ideology, pulling at their heartstrings isn’t going to help. While fear is a tactic often thought to be the domain of the right wing, and a potentially effective tool of influence, even this emotional state isn’t sufficient to push them in a new direction. For leftists, however, evoking empathy and compassion leads to a greater willingness to compromise, as does fear.
Though it was assumed that rightists would be more rigid in their beliefs, researchers still wanted to know if they would be influenced by emotion, especially negative emotion (they weren’t). This surprised researchers as they openly associated rightists with being overly reactive and susceptible to ideological shifts based on emotions (rather than reason). However, the results, across the spectrum, show that rightists intentionally seek to suppress affect and its influence. Once they have a position, almost nothing moves them.
A Note on Researcher Bias
An especially interesting aspect of this study was the researcher bias pervading the report of the findings.
For a U.S.-based audience, the results of the study might not be all that surprising. Liberals, in an American context, are often described as “bleeding hearts” or “flip floppers.” Thus a study showing that leftists change their beliefs based on emotional stimuli might not be saying much, and it might not be considered a good thing either. Does changing one’s belief based on a surge of emotion signal one’s adaptability, openness to new perspectives, and empathy? Or does it simply show a lack of conviction?
The researchers reveal their bias:
“Based on prior findings that ideological leftists’ beliefs are more susceptible to change than rightists’ beliefs, we tested a somewhat counterintuitive extension that leftists would be more susceptible to influence by their emotional reactions than rightists.”
“Conflict-supporting (rightist) ideology in these contexts has been found to influence the positions and behavior tendencies of individuals, facilitating hostile intergroup attitudes, support for violence, and the rejection of conciliatory measures”
“…common wisdom often sees leftist ideology as the logical and emotionally detached approach to reality, while viewing rightist ideology as driven by irrationality and emotionality.”3
So, according to researchers, leftists are rational and rightists are rigid. While it was expected that leftists, in general, would be open to change, i.e. compromise or conciliatory policies, it was not expected that such change would be motivated by emotional stimuli. The bias of the researchers is that leftists are intelligent and stable and therefore make their decisions based primarily upon reason. Thus the ideological shift among leftists was “counterintuitive.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, while known to be rigid, are also perceived by the researchers to be reactionary. Therefore, it was expected that they would change their views or relax their stance, especially in response to emotions such as fear.
The question then is, are conservatives more rigid or more reactive? Which is going to win out when the emotions come into play? The answer? Call them rigid and dogmatic, but in the end, conservatives hold the line. Liberals, given the right argument, or a strong enough emotion, are movable.
Why It Matters
The findings are important because they provide some insights into what motivates (or fails to motivate) shifts in ideology. And naturally it’s in the interest of politicians, leaders and policy makers to understand what sways people and what doesn’t.
In this case, researchers were looking specifically at what emotions would shift ideology towards supporting peace and compromise, but their findings may also show what would move an individual toward supporting conflict, providing insight into why decades- and centuries-long conflicts persist.
According to the researchers, “Our findings indicate that approaches that positively affect leftists may not work for rightists. Specifically, interventions tackling levels of empathy, despair, anger, fear, and possibly other emotional processes may be less effective among ideological rightists, and, especially in right-leaning societies, practitioners may be misdirecting valuable efforts trying to affect change by focusing on emotional change among the general public.”4
Despite the examples of bias noted above, the researchers do acknowledge that it is the leftists that are actually more “reactive” than the rightists. And this was troubling as they realized that leftists could more easily be swayed toward supporting conflict than a rightist could be swayed toward peace.
Pliskin, R., Bar-Tal, D., et al (2014). Are leftists more emotion-driven than rightists? The interactive influence of ideology and emotions on support for policies. Society for Personality and Social Psychology , 40, 12, 1681-1697
1,2,3,4 Pliskin, R., Bar-Tal, D., et al (2014). Are leftists more emotion-driven than rightists? The interactive influence of ideology and emotions on support for policies. Society for Personality and Social Psychology , 40, 12, 1681-1697