A study suggests that op-ed columns can change minds.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Political opinions today seem best characterized by their tremendous volume, self-righteousness, and obstinacy. But are we really as stubborn as we seem? No. We’re not.

A recent collaboration between Yale political scientist Alexander Coppock and two researchers at the Cato Institute tested the influence of op-eds on people of all stripes: Democrats and Republicans, the general public and policy experts. Participants were charged with reading op-eds that argued for libertarian positions—a flat tax, for instance, or funding public infrastructure through user fees. After finishing the op-eds, they were surveyed on a number of policy attitudes, some of which were closely related to the argument they’d just read.

“The main finding was a large increase in agreement based on the op-eds—something on the order of 10 to 15 percentage points,” says Coppock. In other words, if 50 percent of a control group that had read nothing agreed with some policy position, then roughly 65 percent of the treatment group would agree with the position after reading a related op-ed.

These effects extended into surprising territory: the shifts in opinion persisted, albeit slightly weakened, 30 days later. “This is very weird,” Coppock says; it’s unaccounted for in prior research, which generally hasn’t measured the effect over time. Moreover, opinions shifted regardless of partisanship: the op-eds persuaded both Democrats and Republicans.

Whether this effect would ultimately alter people’s votes is impossible to say, but Coppock notes that the results may be relevant to the daily flood of persuasive material we read. “People encounter information of the type we’re studying all the time—like when they log on to Facebook and somebody is sharing some opinion piece,” he says. “Our default belief is that people don’t change their minds; they don’t care; they reflexively reject new information because it doesn’t comport with what they thought before. But I just don’t think that’s true. People change their minds all the time.”

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