Rationalizing Our Way to New Political Attitudes

False beliefs and confabulated reasoning can shape our political views.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

By Thomas Strandberg

Choice blindness describes a dissociation between, for example, our opinions and their underlying reasons. In an experimental situation, choice blindness can occur when participants receive false feedback about an attitude they just expressed, accept the false feedback as their own attitude, and rationalize it with seemingly introspective arguments.

Choice blindness was originally studied for simple choices (Johansson et al. 2005; Hall et al. 2010), but is now used as a method to study decision making and information processing in a variety of domains, from eyewitness testimony (Cochran et al. 2018) to more clinical areas (Aardema et al. 2014). Recently, choice blindness has been applied to the study of ideological attitudes.

In one study (Hall, Johansson & Strandberg, 2012), half of the participants responded to a questionnaire containing moral principles such as "it is never morally justifiable to harm another person" and the other half responded to concrete moral issues such as "the violence that Israel used in their battle against Hamas was morally reprehensible because of the civilian casualties." By constructing the questionnaire as a magic trick, we were able to change some of the participants' responses to the opposite right in front of them. The participants were then asked to go through these responses and explain some of them.

Over half of the manipulations were accepted by the participants as being their own responses, and many gave vivid and in-depth explanations for them. For example, one person answered that she was totally against the statement: "The state should be allowed to monitor internet and telephone traffic to ensure the security of its citizens." When she was then asked to explain, she gave detailed arguments about personal integrity and the perils of the "Big Brother" society, and claimed that her view was based on a conversation she recently had with a good friend after both had read about it in the newspaper. The person thus wove autobiographical memories into her post-hoc arguments. 

Prior to the 2010 general election in Sweden, we designed an election compass containing 12 political issues that separated the left-green coalition from the center-right coalition (Hall, Strandberg, Pärnamets, Lind, Tärning & Johansson, 2013). We changed some of the participants' responses and found similar results. However, the manipulation also led to a shift in the participants' overall political profile (center-right sympathizers would after the manipulation have left-green profiles and vice versa). Participants were asked to explain both their (manipulated) individual responses and their (reversed) political profile. By measuring voting intention before and after the experiment we found that almost half of the participants had shifted their voting intention in the manipulated direction. For example, 10% went from completely sympathizing with one coalition to completely sympathizing with the other, and 19% from completely sympathizing with a coalition to being uncertain. (You can see a video demo of the experiment here.)

In our most recent published study, testing over 400 participants, we examined the long-term effects of accepting and rationalizing manipulated responses (Strandberg, Sivén, Hall, Johansson & Pärnamets, 2018). As in previous studies, participants received false feedback to their responses in a political survey. The participants were divided into two groups. One group was only asked to acknowledge their response by reading the statement and confirming their position (e.g. "I agree to some extent" or "I am totally against”). The other group was additionally asked to explain their reasoning behind each response.

All participants then responded to two follow-up surveys taking place five minutes after the test as well as one week later. The follow-ups involved several political issues, including the manipulated items and non-manipulated control items from the first survey. We then compared the difference between the answers to the first survey with the two follow-ups. We found that when participants acknowledged a (manipulated) response, it affected how they responded to the same item in the two follow-ups. The effect was significantly larger for participants that also rationalized them. We further found that participants who started to rationalize a manipulation but then corrected it were also affected to some degree. In cases where participants responded to non-manipulated control items or the manipulations were immediately corrected, they were not affected.

Thomas Strandberg, used with permission
Attitude change after five minutes and after a week.
Source: Thomas Strandberg, used with permission
Thomas Strandberg, used with permission
Bayesian prediction model that estimates the effect the manipulations can have on future attitudes.
Source: Thomas Strandberg, used with permission

These studies demonstrate that even political attitudes depend on situational factors and can be flexible under certain circumstances. From a theoretical perspective, we believe that participants interpret their own behavior—in this case, their survey responses—and infer the reasons behind these responses (Bem, 1967; Carruthers, 2010; Mercier & Sperber, 2011; Mercier & Landemore, 2012). Choice blindness could therefore be a viable lens for studying the mechanisms underlying political attitude change and how people are influenced by false information that appears to be true.


Aardema, F., Johansson, P., Hall, L., Paradisis, S. M., Zidani, M., and Roberts, S. (2014) Choice blindness, confabulatory introspection, and obsessive-compulsion symptoms: A new era of investigation. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 7(1), 83-102.

Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74(3), 183–200.

Carruthers, P. (2009). How we know our own minds: The relationship between mindreading and metacognition. Brain and Behavioral Sciences, 32(2), 121-182.

Cochran, K. J., Greenspan, R. L., Bogart, D. F., & Loftus, E. F. (2018). (Choice) blind justice: Legal implications of the choice blindness phenomenon. University of California, Irvine Law Review 8, 85.

Hall, L., Johansson, P., Tärning, B., Sikström, S., & Deutgen, T. (2010) Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition, 117, 54–61.

Hall, L., Johansson, P., & Strandberg, T. (2012). Lifting the veil of morality: Choice blindness and attitude reversals on a self-transforming survey. PLoS One, 7(9), e45457.

Hall, L., Strandberg, T., Pärnamets, P., Lind, A., Tärning, B., & Johansson, P. (2013). How the polls can be both spot on and dead wrong: Using choice blindness to shift political attitudes and voter intentions. PLoS One, 8(4), e60554.

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikström, S., & Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to detect mismatches between intention and outcome in a simple decision task. Science, 310, 116–119.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(02), 57-74.

Mercier, H., & Landemore, H. (2012). Reasoning is for arguing: Understanding the successes and failures of deliberation. Political Psychology, 33(2), 243-258.

Strandberg, T., Sivén, D., Hall., L., Johansson, P., & Pärnamets, P. (2018) False beliefs and confabulation can lead to lasting changes in political attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(9), 1382-1399.