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How to counter people with extreme views: Try agreeing with them

How do you get people with extreme beliefs to change their minds, or at least open them a little? 

It may sound counterintuitive, but a new study suggests that instead of arguing with them, you might try agreeing — with great enthusiasm. 

As anyone living through the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign knows, verbal arguments are rarely effective when people have made up their minds and their belief has become part of their identity. 

Experts say that once this happens, vigorous and impassioned debate becomes counterproductive, leading ideological opponents to dig in their heels and refuse to listen to the other side.

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Think: “I don’t think he’s qualified no matter what you say.” Or, “she’s crooked and you can’t convince me otherwise.”

But there may be another way.

In a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Israeli researchers show that it is possible to challenge strongly held beliefs by employing a strategy of agreeing with an extreme view, and then amplifying it until it reaches an absurd conclusion.

The technique is called paradoxical thinking, and it is based in part on the debating technique called reductio ad absurdum.

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The idea is to exaggerate a person’s core belief in such a way that it leads the believer to see his or her stance as irrational.

For example, imagine if a friend with a two-pack-a-day habit said to you, “All those studies that say smoking causes cancer don’t prove anything.”

Using the paradoxical thinking technique, you might respond, “Totally! Lung cancer obviously has nothing to do with smoking.”

That statement would probably sound extreme and illogical, even to your friend, and it might cause her to wonder if her own statement sounded kind of extreme too. In turn, she might reevaluate how she thinks about smoking and its relationship to lung cancer — at least a little.

Eran Halperin, a psychology professor and head of the Emotion in Conflict lab at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, has spent the last several years trying to see whether this strategy could be employed to soften the minds of right-wing, hawkish Israelis and prompt them to consider a peaceful resolution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Efforts to negotiate an end to disputes related to territory, political recognition and other issues have been stalled for years, resulting in periodic flare-ups of violence.

The work culminated in a paradoxical-thinking advertising campaign that Halperin and his team staged over six weeks last year in the small central Israeli city of Givat Shmuel.

The team selected the city of 25,000 because of its political leanings. The population is mostly religious, and the conservative parties Likud and Jewish Home garnered 63% of the vote in the most recent national election. 

Before launching the intervention, the team spent more than a year working with branding and advertising agencies to hone their message and materials. Early versions were tested among small focus groups in Halperin’s lab, and only the most effective were rolled out in Givat Shmuel.

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What they came up with was this: “Without it, we would never be just. For justice, we probably need the conflict.”

“The basic idea was to take some of Israelis’ most common beliefs — we are the most moral society, we are the ultimate victims — and take that to an absurd conclusion by saying in order to feel moral, we must preserve the conflict,” Halperin said. 

In September 2015, the researchers started plastering their message on billboards throughout the city and on online ad banners linking to YouTube videos the team had made.

The timing could not have been better: That month marked the start of what became known as the “knife intifada,” a wave of stabbings and other attacks carried out largely by “lone wolf” attackers. 

In the final weeks of the campaign, a ground team of about 10 people hit the streets to hand out 4,000 pamphlets that articulated the “we need the conflict” message. 

Importantly, the people of Givat Shmuel were never tipped off that the ads were part of a social experiment.

Over six weeks, there were more than 4.4 million exposures to the online banners, 95% of which were in the city and its surroundings. Additionally, the videos were viewed almost 1 million times, and 80% of those viewers were from the local area. 

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“We believe that most people saw one of our ads,” Halperin said.

To test the campaign’s effectiveness, the researchers surveyed more than 200 residents of Givat Shmuel about their attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before and after the intervention. As a control, they posed the same survey questions to more than 300 residents from nearby cities.

Both cities had a similar political profile, but the control group lived far enough away from Givat Shmuel that they weren’t likely to have encountered the ads, the authors said.

Survey questions included asking participants how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “Despite Israel’s desire for peace, the Arabs have repeatedly forced war,” and “I think that Israel is not doing enough to try to solve the conflict in a peaceful manner.” 

Over time, the researchers said they found a significant change in attitudes among Givat Shmuel residents. Compared with the control group, they shifted from more hawkish to more conciliatory.

“It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but roughly, we found meaningful change in about 20[%] to 25% of participants,” Halperin said. 

The team also found that the intervention worked best among the most hawkish participants, which is what the group expected.

However, the intervention may have had an unintended effect among centrist participants, causing some of them to become more hawkish than centrists in the control group.

“It is possible that at least some participants perceived the paradoxical thinking messages literally … which led to this surprising effect,” the authors wrote. This result deserves more investigation, they added.

Andrew Ward, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a member of the Peace and Conflict Studies program there, said a strength of the study was that it took place in the field, in the midst of a real conflict. 

“Doing an experiment like this in the real world is not very common,” said Ward, who was not involved with the research. “Typically you might do an intervention like this in a lab setting or a treatment setting.”

After reading the study, he said he was left wondering to what extent the paradoxical thinking message was uniquely able to moderate extreme views.

“They get a lot of credit for having the control group, but you wonder how this manipulation would compare to any other manipulation,” he said. 

Halperin said the group had experimented with other strategies, but they haven’t compared them yet.

The study was approved by officials at the Interdisciplinary Center and funded in large part by the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace.

It might seem manipulative to subject an entire city to a social experiment on the sly, but Halperin does not apologize for his methods. 

“We believe that psychology and psychological interventions should be used to improve the well-being of people and groups, and if we can use them to moderate violent radicalism and extremism, we actually serve that goal nicely,” he said.

As for whether paradoxical thinking could moderate extreme views in other scenarios, Halperin and his team believe the answer is yes. 

“The fundamental idea of paradoxical thinking and the hypothesized mechanisms are general and apply to other contexts and populations,” they wrote.

So the next time someone provokes you with an extreme point of view, suppress the urge to say, “No, no, no!” and try “Great point! And…..”

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


UPDATES:

5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Andrew Ward. 

This article was originally published at 1:45 p.m.


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