Propaganda can backfire in complex ways. People exposed to extremist versions of views they hold can respond by moving away from, rather than towards, the hardline views presented to them. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated this effect in an unusually realistic environment.
Psychologists from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Israel surveyed 535 Israelis over a six week period. Their sample was deliberately skewed towards populations that strongly favor right-wing parties. A subgroup of 215 from one town, chosen for its hawkish voting record, were exposed to particularly radical anti-Palestinian sentiment through leaflets, online advertising, and carefully placed billboards.
The campaign was almost a caricature of right-wing Israeli sentiment, opposing peace with Palestine on any terms. Participants were not aware the campaign was related to the survey in which they were taking part, thinking it was a genuine push by an extremist group.
It might have been anticipated that being bombarded with such a far right campaign would harden the positions of people already hostile to Palestinian rights. Instead the opposite occurred.
Residents of the town became notably less likely to agree with anti-Palestinian statements and more supportive of conciliatory policies over the course of the study, while no shift was seen among the control group. On most tests, the effect was not statistically significant for those who started the period with views the authors described as "centrist". However, those with initially right-wing views ended up with positions almost identical to the centrists.
The strange outcome is similar to a previous study by the same team, although by the authors' own admission that work had methodological flaws they set out to correct this time. The idea of “paradoxical thinking” as a way of shaking people from entrenched positions has considerable history in psychological studies, inspired by the debating technique known as reductio ad absurdum, when an opponent's arguments are taken to extremes as a way to expose their flaws. Therapists sometimes use something similar.
The study was conducted at a particularly fraught point in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Running from August to October 2015, the study coincided with a period of more fear and anger than usual. In September 2015, multiple acts of violence led many Israelis to conclude the region was on the verge of a Palestinian uprising. As the paper notes: “Living in fear and uncertainty can increase group polarization and extremism.”
To moderate the views of the participants in this context is an unusual achievement. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how widely the research can be applied, and how extreme material needs to be in order to create such a backlash, but surely the need for extremism-reducing techniques could hardly be more evident.