New research shows how support for a generally liked policy can be significantly lowered, simply by associating it with a group seen as “radical” or “extreme.”
In one experiment, researchers found that people expressed higher levels of support for a gender equality policy when the supporters were not specified than when the exact same policy was attributed to “radical feminist” supporters.
These findings show why attacking political opponents as “extremists” is so popular–and so effective, said Thomas Nelson, co-author of the study and associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“The beauty of using this ‘extremism’ tactic is that you don’t have to attack a popular value that you know most people support,” Nelson said.
“You just have to say that, in this particular case, the supporters are going too far or are too extreme.”
In one experiment, 233 undergraduate students were asked to read and comment on an essay that they were told appeared on a blog. The blog entry discussed the controversy concerning the Augusta National Golf Club’s “men only” membership policy. The policy caused a controversy in 2003 before the club hosted the Masters Tournament.
Participants read one of three versions of an essay which argued that the PGA Tour should move the Masters Tournament if the club refused to change this policy.
One group read that the proposal to move the tournament was led simply by “people” and “citizens.” Another group read that the proposal was led by “feminists.” The third group read that the proposal was led by “radical feminists,” “militant feminists,” and “extremists.” Additional language reinforced the extremist portrayals by describing extreme positions that the groups allegedly held on other issues, such as getting rid of separate locker room and restroom facilities for men and women.
Participants were then asked to rate how much they supported Augusta changing its membership rules to allow women members, whether they supported the Masters tournament changing its location, and whether, if they were a member, they would vote to support female membership at the club.
The findings showed that participants were more supportive of the golf club and its rules banning women when the proposal to move the tournament was attributed to “radical feminists.” They were also less likely to support moving the tournament, and less likely to support female membership.