How We Think Affects What We Think About Public Policies

Authored By 
Jamie Luguri
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

People often have the intuitive sense that they have “made up their minds” about politics and that their attitudes about public policies are stable and fixed. However, a large body of research in social psychology has shown that this isn’t always the case. It turns out that people’s attitudes fluctuate, responding in various ways to the world around them. For example, where people vote can influence how they vote.

Recently, research has begun to focus on the relationship between how people think (i.e., their mindset) and what they think about politics. Construal level theory posits that people see the world on one of two levels: abstract (broad and decontextualized) or concrete (specific and detailed). Studies have found that moving from one level to another can affect both behavior and opinion.

How does mindset level influence people’s attitudes, particularly toward politics and public policies? This has been a focus of several recent research efforts. For example, one set of studies suggests that getting people to think abstractly might be a way to reduce political polarization. The researchers investigated attitudes toward building a mosque near Ground Zero, an issue that liberals and conservatives typically disagree about. However, once liberals and conservatives were put into an abstract mindset, both groups became more moderate in their views.

A related line of research replicated this effect in several different public policy areas, ranging from universal healthcare to affirmative action. However, this work uncovered an important caveat to the nitial finding. Liberals and conservatives became less polarized on these issues when they were put into an abstract (vs. concrete) mindset, but only when they were thinking about themselves as Americans. If their partisan (Democrat or Republican) identity was salient, abstract thinking was associated with more, not less, polarization.

Taken together, these two lines of research suggest that getting people to think abstractly (vs. concretely) can have important consequences for people’s public policy support. However, more research needs to be done to uncover specifically when an abstract mindset will bring people together, and when it will tear them apart.

We also need more information about how mindset level might be influenced in the real world. In the studies described above, people were put into an abstract mindset by being asked to reflect why they engage in a certain goal, versus how they achieve that goal (which induced a concrete mindset). Mindset level can also be influenced by factors relating to distance. Things that are far away (in time and/or space) are more likely to put people into an abstract mindset. This suggests that people’s public policy preferences will be different when thinking about a policy that will be implemented in the distant future instead of right away, or about a policy that will affect their local community instead of the nation at large. Future research is needed to disentangle how these more naturalistic manipulations of mindset level might (de)polarize our politics.