Polarisation and partisanship in politics are a constant topic of discussion, and political candidates often believe they must focus their campaign efforts on a small number of swing voters open to ideological change. Based on the wisdom of opinion polls, this might seem like a good idea. But do most voters really hold their political attitudes so firmly that they are unreceptive to persuasion?

In the study, led by Lars Hall and Petter Johansson of Lund University, Sweden, the researchers wanted to see just how open voters are to change in the final weeks before a general election. To do so, they first asked people to state their voting intentions for the upcoming election, and presented them with a political survey of wedge issues that separated the two coalitions in the race. The questions concerned familiar issues like income taxation, unemployment insurance, and environmental policies on petrol and nuclear power that traditionally divides the left and right wing.

The special thing about this survey was that the researchers used sleight of hand to secretly alter the responses of the participants, instead placing them in the opposite political camp, and invited them to reason about their attitudes on these reversed issues. Then the researchers created a summary score on the survey, and asked for the participants’ voting intentions again (please see http://www.lucs.lu.se/cbp for a video illustration of the experiment).

What the results showed was that only 22% of the manipulated responses were corrected and that a full 92% of the participants accepted and endorsed the reversed political survey score. Furthermore, the final voter intention question indicated that as many as 48% (±9.2%) were willing to consider a left-right coalition shift. This can be contrasted with the established polls tracking the Swedish election, which registered a maximum of 10% of voters open to a swing across the partisan divide.

The authors conclude that political attitudes and partisan affiliations can be far more flexible than what is assumed by the polls, and that people can reason about the issues of the campaign with considerable openness to change. Commenting on the study, Lars Hall says, “it is comforting to know only five dollars’ worth of paper and glue is required to make this point, rather than a billion dollar campaign industry. I believe our method is a terrific educational tool to dramatise the potential for political change”.

However, he stresses that this was an anonymous research study, where the purpose of the experiment was explained to the participants at the end. It would be unethical as an applied instrument of persuasion.

Petter Johansson says, “Our results show there is a world beyond ideological labels and partisan divisions. But the question remains of how to enter this world with no sleight of hand to pave the way. Now, it’s up to the politicians to somehow find more neutral ground, and get people to engage with the factual issues of the campaigns.”

Publication: Hall, L., Strandberg, T., Pärnamets, P., Lind, A., Tärning, B. & Johansson, P. (2013). How the Polls Can Be Both Spot On and Dead Wrong: Using Choice Blindness to Shift Political Attitudes and Voter Intentions. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060554

Image description: A step-by-step demonstration of the manipulation procedure. A. Participants indicate the direction and strength of their voting intention for the upcoming election, and rate to what extent they agree with 12 statements that differentiates between the two political coalitions. Meanwhile, the experimenter monitors the markings of the participants and creates an alternative answering profile favouring the opposite view. B. The experimenter hides his alternative profile under his notebook. C. When the participants have completed the questionnaire, they hand it back to the experimenter. The backside of the profile is prepared with an adhesive, and when the experimenter places the notebook over the questionnaire it attaches and conceals the section containing the original ratings. D. Next, the participants are confronted with the reversed answers, and are asked to justify the manipulated opinions. E. Then the experimenter adds a colour-coded semi-transparent coalition template, and sums up which side the participants favour. F. Finally, they are asked to justify their aggregate position, and once again indicate the direction and strength of their current voting intention.

Lars Hall
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