Are our political opinions as stable as we think they are?

This week, I read an article from Vox about how people often change their political opinions without knowing it. The author framed it from the perspective of Republicans changing their views to become more aligned with those of Trump. He states that when people do change their opinions, they often don’t realize that they’ve changed their opinions.

This article talks about several studies. The one that he talks about in most depth was one done on college students where they were asked their opinions about spanking. They asked them if spanking was effective. Then, they brought the participants back in a few months and had them read different arguments about spanking. Then, they asked them if spanking was effective again, and they also asked them to recall what they said in the first session. What they found was that participants ranked spanking as more effective if they read arguments that were inconsistent with their beliefs, and they also recalled their initial ranking as higher than it actually was. This study was done on college students, so it may not apply to all populations.

belief graph

Another study that he briefly talks about was one where people in Sweden were given opinion polls. The researchers collected the polls, changed the answers to reflect the opposite opinon, and gave them back. They found that 92% of participants didn’t notice the changes. The questions on the poll were things like, “gasoline taxes should be increased”, and “the legal age for criminal responsibility should be lowered”. I don’t know anything about Swedish politics, so I don’t know if these were important issues to people. I would imagine that they weren’t that important, since most people didn’t notice that their polls had been changed, but maybe this supports the idea that people’s opinions are easily changeable, regardless of how important they are. I suspect that it’s the former, but there’s not enough information in the study for me to know. I also think that I suspect the former because I don’t want to believe that the beliefs that are important to me would be easily changed. I want to believe that if these were important issues to me, I would be part of the 8% who noticed the changes. This definitely could be biasing my analysis of this study.

belif poll.png

The author makes an important statement at the end that I think he doesn’t spend nearly enough time on. He says, “We’d have better awareness if we changed our minds on a topic that is more deeply connected to our identity — like access to abortion or belief in climate change.” The issues that Republicans have changed their minds on that were outlined in this article were opinions about Putin and opinions about free trade. These opinions have changed from 2015 to 2017. It’s not surprising that these opinions have changed. In 2015, I don’t think that either of these issues were well talked about in the media. Now, Trump is making more public statements about both and there is more media coverage about both, so it makes sense that opinions would have changed. Perhaps in 2015, these were neutral topics to a lot of people, and in 2017, they went with the opinions of Trump because it was easier than forming their own opinions from research. I suspect that if Trump suddenly made pro-choice statements, we would not see a drastic change in Republicans’ views, and would instead see a public outcry. I don’t think this invalidates his argument. It’s true that opinions on these issues have changed, and it can likely be attributed to Trump’s public discussions of these issues. However, if this article is meant to make people think about how easily their opinions can be changed, even the ones that they thought were firmly held and stable, this point becomes very important.

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