By Chris Mooney, a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the just-released The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality and the New York Times-bestselling The Republican War on Science. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund, and is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.
Voting image via Shutterstock
One of the first questions that usually comes up when people ask me about my book The Republican Brain is: “How do you explain my Uncle Elmer, who grew up a hard core Democrat and was very active in the union, but now has a bumper sticker that reads ‘Don’t Tread on Me’?”
Okay: I’m making this question up, but it’s pretty close to reality. People constantly want to know how to explain political conversions—cases in which individuals have changed political outlooks, sometimes very dramatically, from left to right or right to left.
When I get the standard political conversion question, the one I ask in return may come as a surprise: “Are you talking about permanent political conversions, or temporary ones?”
You see, Uncle Elmer is less interesting to me—and in some ways, less interesting to the emerging science of political ideology—than the committed Democrat who became strongly supportive of George W. Bush right after 9/11, but switched back to hating him a few months later. What caused that to happen? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with thinking carefully about the issues.
Indeed, the growing science of politics has uncovered a variety of interventions that can shift liberal people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Here is a list of five things that can make a liberal change his or her stripes:
Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load”—in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch—produces a conservative political shift.