I recently asked a bunch of psychologists to tell me something mind-blowing — and one psychologist’s answer seemed especially relevant in light of the upcoming US presidential elections.
Dan Ariely of Duke University said he was fascinated by a 2014 Israeli study in which researchers used a counterintuitive tactic to change people’s political views.
Instead of going the usual route and explicitly telling people their beliefs were irrational, the researchers used a strategy called “paradoxical thinking,” meaning they presented people with the extreme versions of their political perspectives.
The researchers were collaborating with The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace, an American nongovernment organisation that had asked them to develop a new approach to garner support for peace among Israelis.
Previous research had provided preliminary evidence for the effectiveness of paradoxical thinking. In one 1988 study, for example, women who supported traditional gender roles were asked questions like, “Why do you sympathize with the feelings of some men that women are better kept barefoot and pregnant?” Sure enough, those women ended up changing their beliefs about gender roles.
So for the current study, the researchers decided to apply a similar approach. Specifically, they aimed to change people’s views on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A few months before the 2013 Israeli elections, they recruited 161 Israeli Jewish participants, about 60% of whom were rightists, 21% of whom were centrists, and 19% were leftists. (Leftists are more sympathetic than the other two groups are to Palestinian concerns.) Researchers assigned each participant to either the paradoxical thinking intervention group or the control group.
Over the course of the next few months, those in the paradoxical thinking intervention group repeatedly came back to the lab to watch short video clips that portrayed the conflict as a positive experience that underlies Jewish identity. Participants in the control group watched short video clips about Israeli tourism.
A few months later, the participants once again filled out questionnaires about their politics. As it turns out, rightists in the paradoxical thinking intervention group had changed their views. Specifically, they saw the Palestinians as less responsible for the continuation of the conflict.
What’s more, the rightists who’d seen those videos were more likely to report that they’d voted for more “pro-peace” political parties than were rightists who’d seen the tourism videos. Even one year later, the rightists who’d seen the pro-conflict videos reported a shift in their political attitudes.
Leftists who’d seen the pro-conflict videos, on the other hand, hadn’t changed their views very much. And the participants who’d seen the tourism videos hadn’t altered their views, either.
The researchers can’t say for sure why watching the pro-conflict videos worked to change rightists’ views. But they suspect that this approach doesn’t threaten people, so it reduces the activation of defence mechanisms, and allows them to reconsider their positions. And responses from an earlier experiment in the study suggest that participants might have seen the messages as so extreme as to be absurd.
Of course, this study was conducted in Israel, so there’s no way to know if the same findings might apply in the US. Moreover, this research was conducted in a lab, so it’s unclear whether testing out this technique on your super-conservative uncle would work.
Future research might look at the best route for changing people’s views in different cultures and social settings. Until then, it’s helpful to know that the traditional path to changing someone’s mind — telling them they’re wrong — isn’t always the most effective.
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