“The beauty of using this ‘extremism’ tactic is that you don’t have to attack a popular value that you know most people support,” said Thomas Nelson, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“You just have to say that, in this particular case, the supporters are going too far or are too extreme,” he said.
Nelson is the co-author of a recently published study in journal “Political Psychology” that shows just how powerful this tactic is.
Polls have shown that most Americans oppose the Augusta National Golf Club’s men-only membership policy.
Nelson and his colleges conducted a study asking undergraduate students whether or not they support the club’s “men only” membership policy and whether or not the PGA Tour should move the Masters Tournament if the club refuses to admit women.
They presented different students with one of three documents containing the same exact content for the proposal itself, which is that the PGA Tour should move the Masters Tournament if the Augusta National Golf Club refused to change its “men only” policy.
In one version of the document, the proposal was said to be led by “people.” In a second document, the proposal was said to be led by “feminists.”
In a third document, it was said to be led by “radical feminists,” “militant feminists,” and “extremists.” This document also stated that the “radical” groups supported extreme policies like getting rid of separate locker rooms and restrooms for men and women.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who read that the proposal is led by “people” gave more support to the proposal itself and those who read that the proposal is led by “radical feminists” gave less support to the proposal itself.
In a separate experiment, various students were given the same three versions of the document. This time, they were asked to rate the following values: freedom of private groups to set up their own rules, equal opportunities for both men and women and maintaining high standards of service for members of private clubs.
Those who read that the proposal was led by “people” thought equality was the most important value. Those who read that the proposal was led by “extremists” thought freedom was the most important value.
Nelson said President Obama’s healthcare reform was a victim of this tactic when opponents called Obama a “socialist” and compared him to Adolf Hitler.
He said this tactic works especially well when people are faced with “competing values and are unsure what their priorities should be.”