SURF Student Crafts More Effective Political Arguments

As the political divide expands in the United States, one Carnegie Mellon University student’s research explores a simple idea to bridge the gap — reframe political ideas using the other side’s language.

Anirudh Narayanan developed an early interest in politics, running for positions in high school as class representative in Dover, Delaware. He applied to CMU and immediately accepted after receiving his Fat Letter. Now a senior majoring in behavioral economics, Narayanan is researching how language can influence the way a person receives political messages.

This past summer, Narayanan received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to pursue a project under the guidance of Danny Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology, and Simon Cullen, an assistant teaching professor of philosophy, both in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Narayanan helped craft political arguments that would be more persuasive by using the points of one’s opposition, whether liberal or conservative, to introduce claims.

“People have a tendency to listen to what they already agree with while tuning out anything they disagree with, even if the other side has valid points,” Narayanan said.

Narayanan worked with Oppenheimer to properly construct arguments, picking different issues that are heavily politicized — gun control, abortion and raising the minimum wage, to name a few. He said that liberal arguments from conservative viewpoints, and vice versa, could yield more constructive results. For example, a conservative might argue that a border wall could actually be beneficial to minorities. A liberal might approach raising the minimum wage by touting the positive effect on small business revenue.

Prior to working on this research, Narayanan didn’t appreciate how much time and thought went into sentence construction. For example, the project team found that the word “citizen” appeals to conservatives, and is less effective in messaging to liberals who are more supportive of immigrants. By constructing sentences word for word, they turned arguments into a science.

Politicians go through the same process when they’re running for primaries, he said. They position themselves further left or right for their own party, and then shift to the center once they’ve won their party’s nomination.

“Politicians are already able to construct these arguments really well. I have this point of view that you won’t agree with, but if I share it to you this way, you might start to come over to my side. I find that fascinating.”

Narayanan points to recent efforts by The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans running ads and social media campaigns counter to the re-election of President Donald Trump. They aim to appeal to conservatives who support Trump, which is of interest to Narayanan’s project due to the similarities.

Being able to communicate with both sides of the aisle would be a dramatic improvement to what’s happening now, Narayanan said, where things are getting more and more polarized. Oppenheimer’s team will test the efficacy of the arguments through surveys.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can make people go toward country over party instead of blindly voting, based on all the information, not just what someone is looking for and purposefully finding,” Narayanan said.

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