After individuals simply pondered and answered a few “why” questions about a benign topic, they became more moderate in their opinions toward an otherwise emotionally charged political issue, say researchers from the University of Illinois.
For the study, researchers set out to explore attitudes regarding the “ground zero mosque” — an Islamic community center and mosque built two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City.
“We used the ground zero mosque as a particularly polarizing issue,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dr. Jesse Preston who supervised the research with graduate students Daniel Yang and Ivan Hernandez.
When the center was first proposed, a heated debate broke out between supporters of religious freedom and those who felt the center should not be near the site of the 9/11 attacks out of reverence for those killed by Muslim extremists.
“People feel strongly about it generally one way or the other,” said Preston.
During the study, the researchers used techniques known to create an abstract mindset in people, Preston said. Prior research has shown that when people are asked to think broadly about a subject (with “why” instead of “how” questions) it becomes easier for them to see an issue from different perspectives.
“Why questions make people think more in terms of the big picture, more in terms of intentions and goals, whereas more concrete ‘how’ questions are focused on something very specific, something right in front of you, basically,” Preston said.
Other research has shown that abstract thinking enhances creativity and open-mindedness, but this is the first study to see whether it can moderate political beliefs, Preston said.
During the first experiment, the researchers established that, after viewing an image of an airplane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers, liberals and conservatives had opposing opinions toward the ground zero mosque and community center.
This experiment was repeated a second time but with new participants and one minor. This time, however, before the participants gave their views on the mosque and community center, they had to answer either three consecutive “why” questions or three consecutive “how” questions on an unrelated topic (in this case, about maintaining their health).
The “why” questions, but not the “how” questions, shifted liberals and conservatives closer together on their views toward the Islamic center, Preston said.
“We observed that liberals and conservatives became more moderate in their attitudes,” she said. “After this very brief task that just put them in this abstract mindset, they were more willing to consider the point of view of the opposition.”
The researchers then conducted an online experiment to see if the results would hold in a more diverse population. In this round, they asked participants to read an ambiguous “faux Yahoo! News” article that included multiple arguments for and against the Islamic center.
Participants who viewed the article in an easy-to-read format remained polarized in their opinions, the researchers found. But those who read the same article after it had been photocopied and made harder to read were more moderate in their views.
Making the information harder to read triggered abstract thinking, said Preston.
“It’s a surprisingly powerful manipulation because people are thinking in a different way and putting in more mental effort while reading,” she said.
“We tend to think that liberals and conservatives are on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other and there’s no way we can get them to compromise, but this suggests that we can find ways of compromising,” Preston said.
“It doesn’t mean people are going to completely change their attitudes, because these are based on pervasive beliefs and world views. But it does mean that you can get people to come together on issues where it’s really important or perhaps where compromise is necessary.”
The research is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Source: University of Illinois