How to turn a wingnut (whether lefty or righty) into a moderate


Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein WRITES HERE of a fascinating study conducted by Philip Fernbach and a team of academics at the University of Colorado whereby political extremists are turned into comparative moderates:

Their central finding is that if you ask people to explain exactly why they think as they do, they discover how much they don’t know — and they become more humble and therefore more moderate.

The study came in four stages. First, people were asked to state their positions on a series of political issues, including a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, a national flat tax, merit-based pay for teachers and unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. They were asked to describe their position on a seven-point scale whose endpoints were “strongly in favor” and “strongly opposed.”

Second, people were asked to rate their degree of understanding of each issue on a seven-point scale. The third step was the crucial one; they were asked to “describe all the details you know about [for example, the impact of instituting a ‘cap and trade’ system for carbon emissions], going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps.” Fourth, people were asked to rerate their understanding on the seven-point scale and to restate their position on the relevant issue.

The results were stunning. On every issue, the result of requesting an explanation was to persuade people to give a lower rating of their own understanding — and to offer a more moderate view on each issue.



  1. interesting…i wish people would really become more moderate. this extreme 5% (on both sides) is what is driving our politics and views on climate change over the edge. the days of people sitting down and “talking” and using reason to make decisions seems to be a faint image in the rear view mirror.

  2. expdoc

    Anyone who has any experience dealing with a living breathing human should know that this is true at a gut level.

  3. Brian Opsahl

    This post describes just about every single wingnut that is posting on these blogs…every one of them Doc…!!

  4. expdoc

    Even you Brian!

  5. Robert

    What I’d like these researchers to find out is why people choose extreme sides one way or the other to begin with? What makes them so easily slide into extreme left or right positions. Is it peer pressure? Is it location? Is it upbringing? Is it intrinsic to their nature? So on and so on.

    Especially when they have little to no knowledge of the subjects they feel so definite about. I think that would give insight into natural inclinations over acquired.

  6. What a great exercise! I just completed it on the four topics above.

    After humbly detailing my insights I realized I am far more informed than I thought, and consequently have become more partisan, extreme, and righteous in my convictions.

    Brace yourselves.

  7. expdoc

    I suspect Cass had the same response Luke.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *