« Conundrums | Gene Expression Front Page | NEW LEADER »
November 05, 2003

Interesting Study about the Malleability of Peoples' Opinons

Little disgusts me more than the praising of the "swing voter" or "moderate," who is not "fair and balanced" (most of the time)*, but rather is ignorant of politics. Worst, because of peoples' malleability in areas they don't think about much (politics is often one of them), they are likely to have simply picked up the leftist beliefs they were taught in school and by the media. Part of the reason Bush is so leftist on domestic issues (ie being in support of large spending increases, pro-open borders, pro-affirmative action, anti-'racial profiling,' soft on gun control, etc) is because a significant number, if not the majority, of the vaunted "swing voters" and "middle Americans" are leftists themselves, due to a combination of ignorance and apathy about politics and a leftist school system and media.

Here is an article about the myth of the virtuousness of swing voters.

As to the political malleablity of the average person, who does not think about politics much, read this article excerpt (from "Verbal Reports on Mental Processes", Nisbett and Wilson, Psychological Review, 1977, p. 236). The study in the excerpt (Goethals and Reckman, 1973) shows that peoples' opinons can be easily changed on controversial issues (busing to force racial integration in the schools was a major controversial issue in 1973 when the study was done). Moreover, the study shows people do not even realize that their opinions have been changed.

"[I]nvestigators assessed the opinions of high school students on 30 social issues, including attitudes toward busing of schoolchildren to achieve racial integration. One to two weeks later, students were called and asked to participate in a group discussion of the busing issue. Each group was composed of three subjects whose pretest opinions indicated that they were all pro-busing or all anti-busing, plus one high school student confederate who was armed with a number of persuasive opinions and whose job it was to argue persistently against the opinion held by all other group members. He was highly successful in this task. Following the discussion, subjects indicated their opinions on the busing issue--on a scale different in form from the original measure. The original anti-busing subjects had their opinions sharply moderated in a pro-direction. Most of the pro-busing subjects were actually converted to an anti-busing position. Then Goethals and Reckman asked their subjects to recall, as best they could, what their original opinions on the busing question had been. Subjects were reminded that the experimenters were in possession of the original opinion scale and would check the accuracy of the subjects' recall. Control subjects were able to recall their original opinions with high accuracy. In contrast, among experimental subjects, the original anti-busing subjects "recalled" their opinions as having been much more pro-busing than they actually were, while the original pro-busing subjects actually recalled their original opinions as having been, on the average, anti-busing! In fact, the original pro-busing subjects recalled that they had been more anti-busing than the original anti-busing subjects recalled they had been."

*Yes, I know Godless is a "swing voter," but he is definintely a special case. Most "swing voters" are not sitting around studying h-bd issues and reading extensively about politics. Also (at least it seems to me), the reason (in addition to social/religous issues) that Godless is not in a hurry to vote straight-ticket Republican is that he sees the Republicans (especially GWB) as often being just as weak or weaker than the Dems on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and controlling the budget, which is a common 'right-wing' viewpoint.

Posted by bb at 05:35 PM




So, GC, you believe that fiscal responsibility = willingness to raise taxes. As JFK (and others) proved, a rising economy and lower taxes produce more government revenue than high taxes and the depressed economy they cause. As for craven politicians being willing to do whatever they believe will get them elected, do you really believe that the democrats are the party of high ideals? They are surely, more than anything else, the party that is owned by their special interests. If they would do anyting, anything at all, that does not sit well with the unions or the plaintiffs bar, I will eat my words.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at November 5, 2003 06:39 PM


Nobody like swing voters, but they run the show. There are two kinds. The one, ignorant kind I call whim voters or fluff voters. The other kind has a mix of issues which neither party fully support, e.g. gay anti-tax voters or pro-gun welfare-staters. Godless fits in the second group. I wouldn't call any of them leftist, but our terminologies are different.

And the Republicans don't have special interests? Yeah, sure.

I doubt Godless was asking for higher taxes. Bush has made no attempt to limit spending (he has a Republican Congress now), and his budget was far out of balance even before war costs were considered.

The Laugher Curve has hardly been validated by history. Reagan and Bush I both raised some taxes. As George Will grumbled, after 12 Republican years, in 1992 government was the same size. Will also gave good marks to Clinton, a semi-Republican -- as well he should have.

Posted by: zizka at November 5, 2003 07:02 PM


The article you excerpt demonstrates that high schoolers have malleable opinions, which doesn't surprise me. Were the multitude of spelling errors (three in the first sentence alone) in the original article, or did you transcribe badly?

Anyway, the thesis is interesting, but I don't think you've presented compelling evidence. This strikes me more as an attempt to attack centrists who tend to dismiss the extreme right and left as uncritical ideologues.

Posted by: bbartlog at November 5, 2003 08:02 PM


Were the multitude of spelling errors (three in the first sentence alone) in the original article, or did you transcribe badly?

I transcribed badly, in all probability. I should probably go back to Moveable Type and fix the errors...

Posted by: hh at November 5, 2003 08:06 PM


As JFK (and others) proved, a rising economy and lower taxes produce more government revenue than high taxes and the depressed economy they cause.

This would be better credited to Laffer, but in any case it is not always true - at some point (granted, much lower than where we are now...) your revenues will decrease. For example when you cut taxes from 1% to .1%.

In any case, a review of federal spending shows that it decreased as a percentage of GDP under Clinton and is now rising under Bush, even if you subtract the cost of operations in Iraq. Assuming that low taxes are always better, even when they lead to arbitrarily large deficits, seems mindless to me.

Posted by: bbartlog at November 5, 2003 08:08 PM


I fixed all the transciption errors (at least all the ones Word could catch). Just to make sure you know, none of the errors I found were in the original.

Posted by: hh at November 5, 2003 08:12 PM


Also, as far as I know, the article was not an attack on centrists. Most of the article (I transcribed a 1/2 page out of about a 20-page article) had little to do with politics.

I also don't see centrism as necessarily an indication of political ignorance. One could investigate politics in depth and come to an overall centrist position (though more than likely, the person will be to the left of the mainstream on some issues and to the right of the mainstream on others, in some cases significantly left or right. A good example would be many of the posters at GNXP, who are h-bd believers (FAR to the right of 'mainstream') but atheists (well to the left of 'mainstream'). But taking the 'mainstream' position on any given issue (which I view as hopelessly leftist on most issues) is MOST likely when one knows little about the issue--for those who know little about politics (or a particular issue), the mainstream is the path of least resistance. I'll admit I have somewhat of a centrist (though leaning anti-war) position on Iraq, but part of the reason for my relatively moderate views on the Iraq war is that I haven't spent the time investigating that issue the way I have for issues like h-bd, immigration, affirmative action, gov't spending, etc.

Posted by: hh at November 5, 2003 08:26 PM


Is it any surprise that centrists are more easily swayed? I always thought that a centrist is someone who believed nothing, or was on both sides of any issue, a la Clinton. But the power that the opinion manipulators have becomes dangerous, as the left works its magic trying to convince the nation to put down our arms, which would allow those who are determined to kill (or convert) us to succeed. For some reason the left has become better at doing this the last few decades, But Bush and Rove are giving the left a run for their money these last four years.

Hopefully the people are smarter about the important things, but the center is where our governments come from. Bush is nominally to the left of Clinton, and far to the left of JFK. Reagan was a master communicator, and made people love him. But in the end he was only slightly to the right of Clinton, just more effective.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at November 6, 2003 06:22 AM


Would these students have had an opinion on busing without the exercise?

Posted by: . at November 6, 2003 09:00 AM


Would these students have had an opinion on busing without the exercise?

Previous to being exposed to pro- or anti-busing arguments, students took a survey of their views on social issues, incluiding their views on busing.

I'm sure that the vast majority of the students did have a real opinion on school busing to force racial integration (as opposed to some BS they wrote just to fill in the survey). Forced busing was a pretty hot button issue in 1973, and one that *directly* affected high schoolers, as they very well could have been bussed themselves, or even more likely, gone to a school in which a large number of people were bussed into.

I would suspect the busing issue was choosen (out of the other 29 issues) in large part because students were likely to have a genuine and strong opinion about the issue.

Posted by: hh at November 6, 2003 10:12 AM


The most important part of the study is the degree of ignorance people have of the basis of their beliefs. It's Good that people who base their beliefs on vague general feelings can be easily swayed. It shows an open mind.

Razib: Why dwell on blonds when india has women like this? http://www.aishwarya-rai.com/

Posted by: micheal vassar at November 6, 2003 12:14 PM


*Yes, I know Godless is a "swing voter," but he is definintely a special case...

I'm sorry, I had to laugh out loud. And I have to ask...what evidence do you have that GC is a "swing voter"? How exactly do you define swing voter?

GC is a hard left ideolouge. Hard left. On a scale of 1-100 with 1 being left and 100 being right GC is about a 15. Maybe a 20. It is readily apparent from his posts. Want me to link 'em up? GC's posts don't come from the middle.

Bush is a liar. Bush is a cokehead. Bush may be impeached over Plame. Bush was AWOL and a draft dodger. Bush is obstructing justice. These are just a few of GC's assertions, just over the last few weeks. The middle? Please.

Its not just that this stuff is pathetic. Its frankly embarrassing to me personally because I tend to think of scientists as intelligent, thoughtful and rigorously honest. Check out GC's post titled "Precedent". Its just jejune lefty nonsense.

Do you guys really think that is what the middle in the US thinks?

If you guys think GC is a centrist you really are out of touch. Swing voter indeed.

Posted by: Katy at November 6, 2003 08:33 PM


I agree with GC on most lot of things, but I too am perplexed by his pro-wesley clark sentiments. Clark is not going to even be in the election. It will be Dean or Gephard or Lieberman. Clark seems like sort of a wacko. He says he is fiscally conservative, but I don't trust him since he is a Democrat. He is pro-abortion, pro-affirmative action.

If there was an ideal candidate that would be pro-India (stop sending aid to pakis, force them to give up al qaeda remnants), pro Israel (let them do what they have to), pro-life, pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro gay marriage, cut back on spending, be fiscally conservative and responsible, enforce border laws, reform immigration, quit saying that Islam means peace (why say anything at all), anti-faith based iniative, pro separation of church and state, pro-2nd ammendment, anti-Saudi, anti-statist, anti-tranzi, pro-personal responsibility, and not afraid to be about the JDAMS. I'll probably vote for Bush, unless he monumentally messes up. I guess that makes me a "swing voter".

"(T)emporary visas for Middle Eastern students, tourists, and businessmen remain plentiful; immigrant visas continue to be given away at random or for the right price; the borders remain porous; the welcome mat for illegal aliens is expanding; and the deportation system is in shambles. Despite strong public support for stronger controls, officials in both major parties continue to be paralyzed by political correctness and bureaucratic sclerosis. They have yet to come to grips with the reality of homicidal America-haters lurking at our doorstep - evildoers whose modus operandi is to infiltrate our country, then kill us. Our leaders have failed in one of their most basic constitutional responsibilities: to provide for the common defense." -- Michelle Malkin


For a good laugh, see calpundit's shallow reasons for voting for Clark:
http://www.calpundit.com/archives/002586.html

Posted by: AJ at November 7, 2003 01:05 AM


Hm. GC is "hard left"? Jesus.

Posted by: zizka at November 7, 2003 01:06 PM


Katy -
however you might classify GC's politics, he certainly does appear to be a swing voter: he supported Gore last election and now is leaning towards Bush, but apparently could still be convinced to vote Democratic given the right candidate and/or set of circumstances. I find it interesting that you perceive him as being of the left; I am among the 'most people here' that GC refers to who would put him at center or center-right...

Posted by: bbartlog at November 7, 2003 01:44 PM


One bright side of this experiment: the pro-busing students were persuaded more than the anti-busing students. This might suggest that the more non-leftist position is more persuasive, but I still consider it alarming that either side was persuaded so much (the non-leftist position being more persuasive does not help if people are never presented with it, or have been convinced that the non-leftist position is 'racist', 'xenophobic', 'classist', 'homophobic', 'Islamophobic', or whatever other gobbledygook that the left throws around).

Posted by: hh at November 7, 2003 05:32 PM


GC, I think Katy thinks your hard left because you don't think Bush talks to Jesus(well, you might agree that Bush talks to Jesus, but not that Jesus talks back, cuz he's dead) To a big chunk of the evangelicals, atheism puts you on the hard left

Posted by: rob at November 9, 2003 06:42 PM