2013-04-11

Contrapositive Influence

What if you turned on the television tonight to discover that Ann Coulter (if you're a liberal) or Michael Moore (if you're a conservative) was arguing passionately in favor of a policy that you yourself supported? How would you react? Would you cheer? Would you smile in pleasant surprise as one of your most infamous political opposites made a passionate case for your own point of view?

Or, would you second-guess yourself? Is it possible that merely hearing the phrase "Universal health care for all!" from someone like Ann Coulter would be enough to get you to think twice about your own stance on the issue?

My guess is that for wedge issues like abortion and universal socialist health care, you would be perhaps shocked, but not swayed in the opposite direction. Yet, for more plastic issues such as tax policy, I think it would probably be easy for you to switch sides based on the fact that someone you greatly dislike has taken the position you typically favor and argued for it before you had a chance to really consider it. I actually think this happens all the time.

Obvious examples would be Bill Clinton's many free trade initiatives and George W. Bush's many tax and spending increases. In the heat of the moment, leftists hardly batted an eye at Bill Clinton when he lowered taxes and opened borders. (Well, they certainly batted their eyes, but not in that way...) Meanwhile, it was only toward the end of W. Bush's 8-year rein of terror that some Republicans began resisting all that warring-and-spending. But the average person just stuck to their party affiliations, however loose they may even have been.

Positive And Contra-Positive
The reason for this is straight-forward enough. Many of us out-source a lot of our thinking to respectable thought-leaders. This can happen in a positive way (such as when someone we admire says something new, and we decide we agree) or in a contrapositive way (such as when someone who repulses us says something new, and we decide we disagree).

I have the impression that many of us will take a stronger stance on a given issue if someone we admire makes the case for an even stronger version of our own stance than we have previously considered. For example, if we believe in reducing human CO2 emissions, and we respect Bill Nye the Science Guy, then if Bill Nye made the case that CO2 should not only be taxed, but taxed at an increasing rate (the more CO2 you emit, the higher your carbon tax rate), we might find ourselves agreeing with that position vehemently, even if we had never even considered that to be a viable prospect before.

Similarly, if someone who repulses us makes a weaker claim than we expect, we might find ourselves polarizing our views to an even larger extreme. For example, if Michael Moore suggests that we ought to let the Bush tax cuts expire, we might find ourselves more in favor of a steeper tax reduction than we would have wanted if Moore had made the case that taxes should be raised to 98% on all millionaires.

What I'm getting at is that arguments against what we prefer can be just as persuasive for us as arguments in favor of what we prefer. We might call this "Contrapositive Influence."

Understanding Contrapositive Influence
In order for this phenomenon to occur, the person making the opposing argument must be one whose reputation precedes him/her in a decidedly negative way.

To get a handle on this, consider someone who occasionally says something loony, but who for the most part is well-respected. How about Tom Cruise? If Tom Cruise goes on record as saying that the US government should engage in a modest increase in infrastructure spending, hardly anyone would care. The proposition is modest, and Cruise himself is not a repellent person. But if that same argument were made by, say, Adolf Hitler, then most people would find themselves vehemently opposing modest increases in infrastructure spending. This is due to the fact that, to the modern mind, Adolf Hitler is basically the archetypical "guy who is wrong about absolutely everything." (Cf. Godwin's Law)

Thus, it stands to reason that if Hitler says we should call for the overthrow of the Egyptian government, most people are comfortable saying, "Absolutely not! We should content ourselves with sanctions." But if Hitler proposes sanctions at the beginning, then people who would have argued for sanctions in the first place will soon find themselves arguing against taking any actions against Egypt at all.

But note that if we change "Egypt" to "Libya" and "Hitler" to "Barack Obama" suddenly our whole perspective switches around. This is because most people understand that compared to Hitler, Obama is a moderate, and vice-versa.

Conclusion
The key message here is that we must take the utmost care to guard against our own biases, not just when we might be unduly influenced by someone we agree with, but also when we might be polarizing our own beliefs in response to someone we perceive to be "extreme." It is often said that a stopped watch is right twice a day. During those two times a day, you wouldn't want to be the person denying the time of day merely because you know that a particular watch is broken, right?

Similarly, throwing out certain ideas merely because the person giving voice to them is not entirely trustworthy can prove to be a grievous error, not just because you'd be wrong, but also because you may end up taking a stronger position on the topic than wisdom would dictate. You may fall victim to what we here at Stationary Waves term Contrapositive Influence.