In an experiment from the previous U.S. presidential election cycle, researchers at McGill University set out to establish if influencing voters to minimize political polarization was a possibility.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, used the top presidential candidates of both political parties to conduct an experiment on 136 American voters. In the experiment, researchers asked participants who attended a 2016 presidential debate to compare several traits of their favorite top candidate.
Traits such as vision, courage, and diplomatic skills were measured by each participant and scaled as either more evident in the Republican presidential nominee or the Democratic nominee.
Once the responses were gathered, researchers methodically manipulated the findings to make their responses appear more moderate than initially expressed.
According to researchers, almost all the participants, or 94%, were in accordance with the manipulated responses in which some even exhibited a sudden shift in political beliefs, leaning more towards the center as a result.
“I guess I fall somewhere in the middle — I’d like to think I’m a little moderate. I think at this point it’s important to be open-minded,” said one of the participants, after receiving their manipulated response from the survey.
Based on the findings, Jay Olson, one of the study’s co-authors, concluded: “Political surveys try to capture the attitudes of the public, but our study demonstrates that these can be heavily manipulated.”
“By making people believe that they wrote down different responses moments earlier, we were able to make them endorse and express less polarized political views,” Olson continued.
“These studies demonstrate how false feedback can powerfully shape the expression of political views. More generally, our findings reveal the potential for open-minded discussion even in a fundamentally divided political climate.”