So can you explain how that works in your own words?
We do a lot of pretrial research where complicated processes, inventions, ideas, software, tools, widgets, and other intellectual property ideas are explained. And we do a lot of pretrial research where something that doesn’t seem complicated (like a family estate, for example) gets very complicated, very quickly. We’ve found there are often vocal mock jurors who will pontificate on whatever the topic is (from highway guard rails, to heated patches for sore backs, to hair straighteners, to types of pizza crust, to coin counting machines in grocery stores, and more) and so we defer to their expertise by politely and with great interest asking them to explain to the group how it works, in their own words. They rarely can. They often sheepishly say they guess they don’t really understand after all and their standing as an expert rapidly evaporates.
Today’s research speaks to this issue directly by saying that extreme political views are often based on a false sense of understanding. That is, people typically know a lot less about complex political policies than they think they know. Their understanding is typically quite simplistic (like that of our mock jurors) and when they are asked to explain how a policy works–they are unable to do so (like our mock jurors).
What the researchers found in their first experiment is that when people who loudly support a particular policy are asked to explain how it works in their own words, they are unable to do so. Subsequently, they report their support for the policy they initially supported so strongly has become only moderate. In other words, the initial strong support for a policy was based in “unjustified confidence in understanding” the policy. When asked to explain the policy, the research participants (like our mock jurors) realized they didn’t really understand the policy after all.
The researchers designed another study where participants were asked to rate their position on a given policy and then either explain how the policy worked or list their reasons for supporting or opposing it. Finally, they would choose whether or not to donate a bonus payment to a relevant (i.e., either pro or con) advocacy group. Since prior research shows, according to the authors, that enumerating your reasons for supporting or not supporting a policy reinforces your support/lack thereof, they hypothesized that those who enumerated reasons would be more likely to donate than those who explained how the policy worked. They were right. Those who enumerated reasons were more likely to donate the bonus payment to the relevant advocacy group.
The authors explain their findings as follows:
Asking people to explain how a policy (for example) works, leads them to endorse more moderate positions on the policy and makes them less likely to donate to advocacy groups. The authors say these people are forced to confront their own ignorance.
Asking people to list reasons they support a policy (when those reasons can include values, hearsay and general principles) merely reinforces their belief systems and makes them more likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, you can assist jurors in “confronting their own ignorance” by using the strategy we discussed here earlier on embedding skepticism into your case narrative. [Tip: This strategy is designed to gently embarrass the opinionated extremist, so it’s crucial that you do this gently and politely so you aren’t seen as humiliating him or her. Appearing to be a bully will result in voir dire ending sooner than you had in mind, as no one will talk to you.] As the attorney expresses skepticism (or a lack of understanding of how something works), the jurors resistance to hearing the full explanation is weakened.
Fernbach PM, Rogers T, Fox CR, & Sloman SA (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, 24 (6), 939-46 PMID: 23620547