There is no standard definition of the all-important term “wing nut,” so let’s provide one. A wing nut is someone who has a dogmatic commitment to an extreme political view (“wing”) that is false and at least a bit crazy (“nut”).
A wing nut might believe that George W. Bush is a fascist, that Barack Obama is a socialist, that big banks run the Treasury Department or that the U.S. intervened in Libya because of oil.
The good news is that wing nuts usually don’t matter. The bad news is that they influence people who do. Can anything be done?
Consider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business professor, and his colleagues. 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 re-rate 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.
Interestingly, Fernbach and his co-authors found no increase in moderation when they asked people not to “describe all the details you know” about the likely effects of the various proposals, but simply to say why they believe what they do. If you ask people to give reasons for their beliefs, they tend to act as their own lawyers or public relations managers, and they don’t move toward greater moderation.
The lesson is subtle: What produces an increase in humility, and hence moderation, is a request for an explanation of the causal mechanisms that underlie people’s beliefs.
For wing nuts and their many fellow travelers, however, there is a serious obstacle to this moderation, and it goes by the name of “motivated reasoning.” When people have a strong emotional attachment to their initial convictions, they tend to heap ridicule on anything that runs counter to those convictions and to give a lot of weight to anything that supports them.
If Fernbach and his co-authors are right, this obstacle may not be insuperable. Serious efforts to examine the assumptions behind your own beliefs, and to identify what you don’t know, are likely to produce an increase in humility. Whether or not you change your view, you may well be humbled – and end up being a bit more charitable to those who see things differently.