People who hold extreme views on complex policy issues tend not to have thought all that hard about the ramifications of those policies. That's the argument behind a recent paper published in Psychological Science by Philip Fernbach of the London School of Business, Todd Rogers of Harvard's Kennedy School, Craig Fox of UCLA, and Steven Sloman of Brown.
The authors asked 198 participants to rate their positions from "strongly against" to "strongly in favor" on a number of policies including unilateral sanctions on Iran, raising the retirment age for social security, a single-payer health care system, a cap-and-trade carbon emissions system, a national flat tax, and merit pay for teachers.
Participants were then asked to provide a mechanistic explanation for one of the six policies. As hypothesized, when they were asked again for their opinion, they tended to be a little more nuanced:
As predicted, asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies. We observed these effects both within- and between-participants. Change in understanding correlated with position extremity, such that those exhibiting greater decreases in understanding tended to also exhibit greater moderation of their positions
Critically, the authors found that providing factual explanations for the policy had more of a moderating effect than simply asking participants to explain why they held the position they did.
There have been a number of studies finding that discussion between like-minded people tends to produce an echo-chamber effect, pushing participants to politcial extremes. (This is the central argument behind Cass Sunstein's Republic 2.0 as well.)
This new study suggests that the problem is not the amount of political conversation people have, but the type. When we have to explain a policy, we find that we're not quite as confident in our stance on it.