Choice Blindness: One way to shift political attitudes

Researchers at the Choice Blindness Lab at Lund University in Sweden have released a new study concluding that voter attitudes are not nearly as rigid as most polls indicate:

We asked our participants to state their voter intention, and presented them with a political survey of wedge issues between the two coalitions. Using a sleight-of-hand we then altered their replies to place them in the opposite political camp, and invited them to reason about their attitudes on the manipulated issues. Finally, we summarized their survey score, and asked for their voter intention again. The results showed that no more than 22% of the manipulated replies were detected, and that a full 92% of the participants accepted and endorsed our altered political survey score. Furthermore, the final voter intention question indicated that as many as 48% (±9.2%) were willing to consider a left-right coalition shift.

(You can see brief video on their method here)

They note the influence of a man not unknown to this site, one Jonathan Haidt:

As argued by Haidt…political affiliation can be seen as primarily being about emotional attachment, an almost tribal sense of belonging at the ideological level. The goal of our study was to use CB to circumvent this attachment, and get our participants to exercise their powers of reasoning (post-hoc, or not) on the factual issues of the campaign.

In this way did they get the participants to reason in favor of the policies that they had previously rejected.

I must confess I have a bit of difficulty fathoming that someone who just indicated that they thought the gas tax should be raised would have no problem believing a moment later that they had indicated it should not be raised and then, incredibly, offering a reasonable defense of their choice; i.e., the opposite of their choice as it existed one minute ago!

And the kicker, "participants who rated themselves as politically engaged, or certain in their political convictions, were just as likely to fail to notice a manipulation."

But there were 12 questions overall with many prone to inviting confabulation:

Family leave benefits reserve two months out of a total of 13 months for each of the parents. The number of months that are earmarked for each parent should be increased, to ensure greater equality.

Still my suspicion is that that social context factors–pressure to conform or deference to researchers/authority, etc.–bias this sort of study.  The social trumps the individual. Even in the post interview debriefing where participants are given an opportunity to relate whether they spotted the reversal there might very well be reluctance to confess that they recognized an "error" because they then would have to explain why they didn't point this out to the researchers, or why they saw it but went with it anyway.  I am not satisfied that they have controlled for all of these possibilites. I would love to hear other opinions on this. 

And how do Swedes score on measures of social conformity?

Adjacent tangent: I recall hearing of Jews at the Hitler rallies who wouldn't have to fake the heil salute–their arms would go up automatically. That's a strange love. But apparently true.  I also recall hearing in college how students in studies could be pressured into at least tacitly accepting that 2+2=5, provided they were in a context where everyone else (the study's co-conspirators) professed this belief. Did they really start to believe that 2+2=5? I don't recall:  Ask Orwell's Winston.

Of course Stanley Milgram's work has been seared into our consciousness.

To return from the tangent–how did I stray into such dark territory?–it must be admitted  that previous choice blindess studies seem to have established that there is real vulnerability with individuals' stated preferences. We can clearly be tricked into defending a rejected decision if we think it was the accepted one. (At some point all of this must converge with what economists and other social scientists have long established: that in many instances our presumed preferences are easily reversed or otherwise manipulated , such is the power of suggestion and expectation. See for instance Dan Ariely's recent work). 

But either the subjects in this study were aware of the reversals or they weren't (or perhaps they had inkling that something was askew, or perhaps awareness was quickly suppressed in an involuntary way).  If their rational defense of a previously rejected choice is taking place without conscious awareness then this seems to be further, powerful, evidence for how little thinking really matters. When something is unquestionably our own, rational defense is reflexive–automatic in way that almost suggests hypnosis.

The intuitive dog really is wagging the rational tail. And the dog is really fat, its tail fairly thin.

The Choice Blindness researchers conclude:

Our result shows there is a world beyond ideological labels and partisan divisions, where people can approach the political issues of the campaign with considerable openness to change. Unfortunately, the question remains how to enter this world with no sleights-of-hand to pave the way.

This optimism seems a little misplaced, but by all means please release me from my dark forebodings. Let there be light. And sleight?