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Gibson: A sober second thought

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Gibson. 1998. A sober second thought: An experiment in persuading Russians to tolerate. AJPS 42: 819-50.


Though Russians generally give intolerant responses to survey questions, Gibson wants to know how hard it would be to get them to change this response given some thought. To do so, Gibson uses an experimental survey design.


Like Zaller (1992) said, people form survey responses by sampling from the considerations that happen to be on their mind. By providing additional considerations after asking a survey question, we can see whether people change their minds--and thus learn more about their attitudes. Doing so makes sense--after all, politics is an interactive debate, not a single survey question.

Design and Findings

"Opening bid"

Russians are asked about groups they don't like. Then, they are given a hypothetical scenario: the group that the respondent doesn't like has tried to get on the ballot for parliamentary elections, but Moscow refused to put them on it. Does the respondent support or oppose this decision? The respondent's answer is his "opening bid": is he tolerant or not? Roughly 2/3 of respondents start out intolerant.


If the respondent gave a tolerant response, he is then given three of the arguments frequently made for intolerance. After each, he has the opportunity to change his original response. (If the respondent started with an intolerant response, the reverse process occurs). These three arguments are presented in random order (I think) in order to determine their individual effects.

Those who started out intolerant were hard to persuade. Intolerance dropped from around 67% to around 50% after the three counterarguments. Those who started out tolerant were easier to persuade. Tolerance dropped from around 23% to around 13% after the three counterarguments.

Thus, if the media and public debate constantly promoted tolerance, we might expect to see Russians evenly divided. But if public debate constantly favored intolerance, we might expect to see 77% of Russians intolerant and only 13% tolerant (p 829).


Gibson then turns to predicting why some people are persuadable. He examines three general types of variables.

  1. The nature of the stimuli. If respondents are asked about a more threatenin group, they are less tolerant. He does this by randomly using either the respondent's least liked group or simply one of their other disliked groups as the hypothetically banned group. When the respondent is given the hypothetical situation using the least liked group, they are less tolerant.
  2. Respondents with more "connected" attitudes are easier to persuade. In other words, "democratic values lead to tolerance, but democratic belief systems also include other values [e.g. order] that compete with, undermine, and [possibly] ... trump political tolerance." Thus, if your pro-tolerance views are connected with other pro-democracy views, you might be more easily persuaded toward intolerance.
  3. If you see the world dogmatically (clear black and white terms), you are more easily persuaded--perhaps because your black-white responses simply indicate that you have few considerations on your mind, and adding three considerations can therefore have a powerful influence.


In the last portion, Gibson tries to predict "persuasibility." He runs two regressions, one predicting persuasion to tolerance and the other predicting persuasion to intolerance (p 840). If his Xs were really predicting a "persuasibility" trait, you would expect the Xs to have the same sign in both regressions--but they don't. Apparently, then, he isn't predicting "persuasibility"; instead, he's predicting the probability that you will be tolerant.