Contradictory thoughts lead to more moderate attitudes

Extreme opinions can be countered

Psychologist Prof. Dr. Kai Sassenberg is director of the Leibniz Institute for Psychologie (ZPID) in Trier. Foto: Pawel Nuwaltzew, ZPID

Psychologist Dr. Kevin Winter works at the Department of Sustainable Behavior and Management at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart. Foto: Carmen Moosmann

Researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Psychology (ZPID) and the University of Hohenheim present rhetorical tools that can help to reduce the polarization of discussions.

When discussing controversial issues such as migration or measures against global warming, strongly opposing positions often clash and discussions become emotional. The polarization that can be found here is primarily driven by people with extreme attitudes. Current research shows that these attitudes encourage the adoption of more moderate positions by triggering contradictory thoughts in these people. This is the conclusion reached by psychologists Prof. Dr. Kai Sassenberg, director of the Leibniz Institute for Psychology (ZPID) in Trier and Dr. Kevin Winter from the University of Hohenheim, both located in Germany.

Demonstrators against right-wing extremism chant "All of [...] hates the AfD". Conservative politicians are banning gender-sensitive language in public institutions and farmers are hanging traffic lights on a gallows as symbols of the German government. These are just a few examples of extreme statements and actions that are currently being displayed unabashedly in social discourse. The extreme attitudes of individuals that underlie such polarization are difficult to change. Psychologists Kai Sassenberg and Kevin Winter have argued in a recent article that deliberately triggering conflicting thoughts can lead to more moderate attitudes. "Whether it's remembering personal goals that are difficult to reconcile or dealing with contradictory facts. Such cognitive conflicts lead to less extreme positions being adopted," explains Kai Sassenberg. "What is particularly exciting is that this effect is even evident when the thoughts triggered have nothing to do with the extreme opinion in terms of content." The two researchers refer to this as a mindset - a way of thinking that manifests itself across different situations. But how can such a mindset be triggered in a specific case?

Rhetorical devices to reduce polarized attitudes

Psychological research has shown that contradictory thoughts can be triggered by a range of rhetorical means. In this way, they contribute to the reduction of polarized attitudes. For example, cognitive conflicts can be triggered by rhetorical questions that play out a course of events that deviates from reality ("What if...?"). Communication that activates goals that are difficult to reconcile (e.g., making a career and having plenty of time for the family) also triggers such mental conflicts. In numerous studies, the contradictions generated and mentally played out in this way led people with extreme attitudes to adopt more moderate positions. For example, people with politically right-wing attitudes trusted migrants more after cognitive conflicts had been triggered in them.

Paradoxical Thinking

Another method, which has already been successfully tested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with Germans with right-wing political views, is to ask questions that seem to agree with the extreme positions but exaggerate them in an extreme and sometimes absurd way. For example, the question "Why do you think that Christmas will soon no longer be celebrated in Germany because of the large number of Muslim refugees?" was asked. Kevin Winter explains: "Statements like this trigger opposition even from people who reject the immigration of people of Muslim faith to Germany." In order to distance themselves, people who originally held extreme attitudes adopt a more moderate position.

Regardless of the way in which contradictory thoughts arise, they are likely to lead people with extreme attitudes to adopt more moderate positions. Such thoughts can be triggered by relatively simple rhetorical means. The psychologists are certain that this could help to reduce social polarization at an individual level.

Link to the paper:

Scientific contact person:
Prof. Dr. Kai Sassenberg


Radio-Interview zum Thema im rbb

Prof. Dr. Kai Sassenberg berichtet in der Sendung "Die Profis" im rbb radioeins, wie rhetorische Mittel gegen extreme Meinungan eingesetzt werden k√∂nnen.

Link zum Radiobeitrag