Art of political persuasion not as simple as you might think

The Obama 'Hope' poster, by Shephard Fairey, is one of the most recognisable pieces of political persuasion of recent times. Picture by Steve Rhodes on Flickr

The Obama 'Hope' poster, by Shephard Fairey, is one of the most recognisable pieces of political persuasion of recent times. Picture by Steve Rhodes on Flickr

In summary: 
  • A study by Dr Eugene Chan of UTS Business School shows that while political beliefs might not be as enduring as some people think, it's not a straightforward process to change them
  • Dr Chan asked group of about 200 American voters to indicate their attitudes on 10 various political or social issues and examined differences in their responses depending on whether they were asked "why" or "how"

The question of how to sway people's vote has long vexed campaign managers. As the Australian electorate waits to hear who has won a very tight poll, and ahead of a key election in the United States, new research looks at just what it takes to change someone's political views.

A study by Dr Eugene Chan of the Marketing Discipline Group at UTS Business School shows that while political beliefs might not be as enduring as some people think, it's not a straightforward process to change them.

"It's not as simple as a single scale from the political left to the political right," Dr Chan says. "The ways political thinking can be manipulated are very subtle."

In the first stage of his study, Dr Chan started by asking a group of about 200 American voters to indicate their attitudes on 10 various political or social issues, such as racial discrimination, illegal immigration, homosexuality and minimum wages.

Half of the participants were then asked why they would engage in 10 different activities, such as going back to university or getting married. The other half was asked how they would engage in the same 10 activities. Previous research has shown that asking a "why" question triggers abstract thinking, where people think broadly and in a holistic manner, Dr Chan explains. Meanwhile, a "how" question triggers concrete thinking, where people focus on specifics and particular details.

The survey participants were then given 10 paired statements, each containing a liberal and a conservative view on the same issue, and asked to choose which best corresponded to their view. They were also asked to rate from 1 to 9 how important "tradition" was to them.

Dr Chan says that in the first experiment participants given a "why" question tended to become more polarised in their views on issues of social inequality (questions such as race and illegal immigrants) – in other words, "small l" liberals became more liberal while conservatives became more conservative. "Abstraction causes liberals to support an egalitarian society but causes conservatives to prefer an unequal, hierarchical society," he says.

But there was a second effect: the "abstract construal" caused by the "why" question also increased traditionalism and therefore a preference for the status quo. It caused both conservatives and liberals to be against social change, Dr Chan says.

"So the experiment showed there are two dimensions at work, exerting different influences depending on the dimension or political issue being considered," he says. "These two effects, pulling in opposite directions, are consistent with the view that political ideology is not a single, unitary construct but involves two different concepts: focus on tradition and views toward social inequality."

In the next stage of his research, Dr Chan conducted an experiment that manipulated not just abstract and concrete thinking states but also the element of traditionalism. He did this by assigning participants in the second experiment a writing task that either highlighted or downplayed the importance of tradition. Like the first group, these participants were also randomly assigned "why" or "how" questions. They were then asked to indicate their attitudes towards homosexuality by indicating their response to three different statements.

"When traditionalism was highlighted for people, and people were steered in the experiment towards more abstract thinking, those who disagreed with homosexuality strengthened in their view," Dr Chan says. "When traditionalism was downplayed, however, that effect dissipated."

This impact of traditionalism warrants further examination, he says, with prior research tending to have studied political attitudes as a single left-right difference.

What might this mean for those seeking to "sell" a political view, whether in an election, a plebiscite or referendum like the Brexit vote in the UK, or a social campaign? It certainly suggests political marketers need to tease apart the subtle influences at work and consider precisely what outcomes they are seeking, Dr Chan says.

"In elections, such as the poll in Australia this past weekend, or the coming election in the United States, political parties and candidates must decide what message they are selling, and how.

"Even the mere inclusion of words such as ‘why' or ‘how' in advertising can trigger abstract and concrete thinking. Similarly, asking people to focus on the future triggers abstraction more than asking people to focus on present needs and concerns."

In short, catchwords like "stability" and a focus on maintaining the status quo – as used by the Turnbull Government in this campaign – can be persuasive but their potency will depend on the precise way political advertisements are framed and presented to voters.

Read the paper, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology here.