A new study finds that competition debaters, randomly assigned a position, persuade themselves to the superiority of their side, even if it is contrary to their own personal convictions. This suggests that self-conviction is a significant and resilient contributor to polarization and disagreement over politics. The results are available in the April 1 issue of the journal American Economic Review.
“Politicians are in the industry to persuade,” said Peter Schwardmann, associate professor of social and decision-making at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and co-author of the study. “This work gives us a window into politics and how a politician’s convictions can develop.”
The polarization of society is sharply shown in the US Congress. No matter how much people communicate, we seem to grow further and further apart.
While self-persuasion has been studied in a laboratory setting, Schwardmann and a team of researchers know that this phenomenon is not limited to the lab. They used data collected during international debate competitions to explore how self-conviction affects an individual’s objective beliefs and self-confidence when defending a position.
“We find that competitive debates lead to polarization, because people convince themselves that their side is right even before the debate starts,” says Joël van der Weele, associate professor at the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making at the University of Amsterdam. Van der Weele is a contributing author to the study. “The debate itself does not lead to a convergence of opinions, so the initial polarization persists, even when we ask them one day after the debate.”
Data collection took place at four competitions (2019, 2020 and 2021) which involved more than 400 participants from 58 countries. At the beginning of each debate, each team was given a topic and randomly assigned to either supporters or opponents. The law was given 15 minutes to prepare its defense – with no time for research – before engaging in an hour-long debate that followed the procedures of the British Parliament’s debate rules.
Schwardmann and his colleagues collected three types of surveys to evaluate participants’ thoughts on a topic during each competition. They conducted a baseline survey before the event, a second survey before each debate and a final survey after each debate. The surveys evaluated the participants’ actual beliefs about the motion that was argued, belief in the strength of their position and how personal attitudes were consistent with the argued motion.
The researchers found that self-persuasion occurs despite incentives for accuracy and persists even after exposure to opposing views. In addition, participants were inclined to believe that a statement was true if it strengthened their argument for an assigned position.
“We like to think that we are rational people who are bosses [our] opinions about facts, but we often end up with opinions that are “comfortable” or strategically useful in a given context, “said van der Weele.” The obvious ease with which we do this, even in an environment where these opinions have been evoked in in an explicitly random way, should make us question our own opinions much more, or simply take them less seriously. “
Self-conviction can drive political convictions and limit the ability to resolve conflicts. Schwardmann is interested in exploring this topic further, focusing on whether a greater confidence in a position actually helps to convince others.
“The exchange of ideas during a competitive debate does not lead to people reaching consensus,” Schwardmann said. “A useful strategy to avoid self-persuasion may require more co-operation to arrive at the truth.”
Schwardmann and van der Weele were joined in the project “Self-Persuasion: Evidence from Field Experiments at International Debating Competitions,” by Egon Tripodi at the University of Essex. The project received funding from CRC TRR 190 Rationality and Competition, Research Priority Area Behavioral Economics at the University of Amsterdam, Dutch Science Foundation, European University Institute and Russell Sage Foundation.