Could This Simple Thought Experiment Change How You Vote?

New research suggests that there's at least one clear way to turn a conservative voter into a liberal voter, and vice versa.

For decades, political scientists have tried to understand how and why people choose a certain political party or set of beliefs. This week, that pursuit took a step forward with the publication of a book by Yale psychology professor John Bargh, which detailed, in part, a pair of eye-opening experiments.

In one of the experiments, Bargh and a team of researchers told participants to imagine that they were an indestructible equivalent to Superman and had superpowers that made bullets bounce off their bodies and would prevent them from being hurt if they fell from a cliff. Then, they asked the participants a series of questions intended to suss out their feelings towards social change.

Two of those questions were if the participant "would be reluctant to make any large-scale changes to the social order," or whether "it's okay if some groups have more of a chance in life than others." What they found was that that liberal participants' answers did not change at all after being prompted to feel indestructible or safe. Conservative participants, in contrast, tended to be more open to social change and leaned towards more liberal views when they were made to feel safe. 

A California family in during a June, 2016 primary.  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com.
A California family in during a June, 2016 primary.  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com.

The study seems to support previous research which showed liberals become more conservative in studies where they are made to feel scared before answering political questions.

"Research has shown that you can make liberals more conservative by threatening them and making them somewhat afraid," Bargh wrote in his book, "Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do."

Similarly, there have been several studies that show conservatives have more developed right amygdalas, a part of the brain that processes fear. Research suggests that this is why there was a political shift to the right in the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; Americans were suddenly more open to increased military spending and support of former President George W. Bush.

In his book, Bargh argues that this reality is a product of evolution, Business Insider reports. 

"The fundamental drive for physical safety is a powerful legacy of our evolutionary past," Bargh writes. "It exerts a pervasive influence on the mind as it navigates and responds to modern life, often in surprising ways — like who you vote for."

Together, these studies suggest a valuable insight into how Americans can best pursue social change: by quelling the fears of people who are opposed to that change. Bargh's work seems to imply that the biggest obstacle towards fighting against the status quo is simply convincing people that they won't be hurt by a kind of large-scale change that may improve the lives of others.

During a politically divisive era, the work of Bargh and his fellow researchers can be a valuable way to understand how the other side thinks.


Cover photo: Shutterstock / Lightspring / Evan El-Amin.

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