How rationality can make our political opinions more polarized

In an increasingly diverse US society, new research looking at how individuals ‘rationally’ form their opinions on racial fairness could have important implications for politicians who want to convince people with different ideologies.

Jonas De keersmaecker
Katharina Schmid
Namrata Goyal

The United States is more racially diverse than ever, but opinions about which political ideology will lead to the best outcome are increasingly polarized

Conservative political ideologies are characterized by their will to maintain the current social order and their tolerance of social inequalities within a competitive society. When extended to racial characteristics, this approach lends itself well to the belief that ignoring rather than considering race in political ideology (or ‘color-blind policy’) creates a fairer society. Those who subscribe to this view believe that policy should focus on uniform norms and make no allowances for race, setting a level playing field for competition. 

On the other hand, multicultural ideology is the belief that racial differences do matter and should be recognized, appreciated and openly discussed

Confronting political views 

Proponents of both views argue that they are fair. For the color-blind proponents, if race isn’t considered it can’t be used to discriminate. Multiculturalists, however, will claim that if racial differences and experiences are acknowledged and accepted without judgment, those differences can’t be used to devalue the opinions held by those racial groups.  

The color-blind view can entail a reinforcement of the current social order between racial groups, thereby obviating an equitable society

Although both color-blindness and multiculturalism reflect promising avenues for promoting intergroup equality at face value, research indicated that deemphasizing race within the color-blind view can entail a reinforcement of the current social order between racial groups, thereby obviating an equitable society. 

In the US, a country in which white citizens have been historically favored by society and whose perspective remains dominant, what prompts the support for either a color-blind or multicultural approach? Do white Americans prefer society to see past racial identities, or openly consider them?  

To find out, Esade’s Jonas De keersmaecker, Katharina Schmid and Namrata Goyal, with co-author Arne Roets (Ghent University), explored the reasoning behind the support for the opposing perspectives. The results, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, have important implications for policymakers and politicians

The impact of rational thought

Before beginning the study, its authors believed that they would uncover a stronger link between conservatism and a preference for color blindness over multiculturalism in individuals with high levels of rationality. For people low in conservatism, the same high levels of rationality would guide them towards a preference for multiculturalism over color blindness. 

Rational thought results in decisions that enable people to achieve personal goals that reflect their ideology

Human reasoning, they suggested, is a dual process of intuitive thought and rational thought. Intuitive thought is fast and effortless. Rational thought is slow, deliberate and considered.  

The rational thought process results in decisions that enable people to achieve personal goals that reflect their ideology. So it follows that for white conservative Americans who aim to protect the current social order, the ‘rational choice’ would be a preference for color-blindness over multiculturalism. On the opposite, for white liberal Americans who aim for social change, the ‘rational choice’ would be multiculturalism. 

The underlying reasoning is that intuitive thinking alone may be insufficient to fully capture the true meaning of both diversity perspectives. In fact, it may lead to the conclusion that color blindness and multiculturalism are different means for the same goal: erasing group-based discrimination. 

Conducting the studies

To test this hypothesis, the research team conducted two studies, each with 500 white US citizens. Both sets of participants were assessed on their levels of conservative ideology and rationality. 

In the first study, participants were asked to read two opinions reflecting different views on diversity and endorsed by policymakers. They were then asked to rate which of the opinions they preferred and were assigned a score that showed their preference for color blindness or multiculturalism. Finally, their rationality level was assessed through a ‘cognitive reflection test’ designed to penalize answers based on mere intuition. 

As expected, the first study found that ideology predicted different preferences towards color-blindness and multiculturalism, especially among the participants that were prone to give answers based more on rationality than intuition

Positions on diversity align with core ideological values and are strengthened when rational thought is applied

The second study aimed to replicate these results with a different methodological approach towards rationality. This time, half of the participants were invited to consider the texts reflectively, with a specific instruction to write down their thoughts on the contents of each policy. The other half of the participants were not asked to write down their thoughts on the policies. Furthermore, all participants completed a cognitive ability or ‘intelligence’ test. 

This second study found that again that ideology predicted different preferences towards color-blindness and multiculturalism, and especially among the individuals who exhibited higher cognitive abilities and were moreover asked to reflect on the policies. 

Strength of opinion

By measuring rational thinking in study 1 and manipulating rational thinking in study 2, the researchers were able to accurately assess whether the relationship between color blindness and conservatism was magnified by a rational thought process.  

As predicted, those with higher levels of conservatism were associated with a preference for color blindness, while participants with lower levels of conservatism related more strongly to multiculturalism. 

People’s positions on diversity align with their core ideological values and these positions are strengthened when people apply rational thought to their beliefs

Appeal to both sides

The research is of particular importance to policymakers, whose attempts to change minds and gain support for a political view may not just be ineffective — they could actively encourage voters to double down on their opinions.  

Polarized attitudes about policies in the left-wing or right-wing direction should not be perceived as irrational, inconsiderate opinions or stemming from lazy cognition. Appeals to encourage rational elaboration in order to change minds and garner support for a particular opposing policy may be at best ineffective and at worse push people into a more deeply entrenched ideology.  

Polarized attitudes about policies in the left-wing or right-wing direction should not be perceived as irrational

As an alternative, reframing policies in a way that aligns more closely with the ideology of those whose approval is sought may be a much more effective approach.  

In the case of color-blindness versus multiculturalism, presenting multiculturalism as a tool for preservation of conservative values, as well as minority cultures, may be a more palatable package for people on the right of the political divide. 

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