Culture & Society

Small Changes to Survey Questions Can Shift Who Gets Blamed for Big Conflicts

Opinions about issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often seem set in stone. A new study challenges that idea.

November 16, 2021

| by Sara Harrison
An illustration of many overlapping pointing fingers. | Credit: istock/Planet Flem

“Seemingly slight modifications to how we present groups can powerfully sway moral judgments.” | istock/Planet Flem

Opinions about highly polarized situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racial tensions in the United States often seem immovable. These seeming impasses are compounded by people’s reluctance to find fault with social or political groups that they belong to or support.

Yet what if opinions could be shifted by small changes in how these issues are presented? In an upcoming paper in Psychological Science, Nir Halevy, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and his coauthors from Stanford and Hebrew University of Jerusalem show how changes to survey questions can change people’s perceptions of entrenched conflicts. By changing the degree of granularity with which they presented different groups, the researchers were able to change how people apportioned blame, including to members of their own group.

These results are particularly striking because they challenge the prevailing narrative that people’s beliefs are too entrenched to be shifted. “Social categorization is so malleable that seemingly slight modifications to how we present groups can powerfully sway moral judgments,” Halevy says.

Fault Lines

In one experiment, the researchers asked nearly 190 Israelis whom they blamed for the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When presented with only two choices, participants would attribute much of the blame on the Palestinians. However, when the researchers broke up the sides into smaller groups, judgments shifted dramatically.

When given the option of portioning out blame between the Palestinians and right-wing, centrist, and left-wing Israelis, the participants split slightly more than 50 percent of the blame between the different Israeli political blocs. When the Palestinians were broken up into smaller political groups and Israelis were packed together into a single group, the balance of blame shifted, with participants assigning nearly 85 percent of the blame to the Palestinian factions.

By framing the groups in the question differently, Halevy and his colleagues were able to change people’s perceptions of the dispute, increasing or decreasing the amount of blame a certain side shouldered by more than 30 percent. “We thought that’s a really notable shift,” he says.

After running their Middle East experiments, the researchers discovered that the same effect could be replicated in experiments involving other large-scale conflicts based on aspects of social identity like race, gender, or political affiliation.

By reframing groups, the amount of blame a certain side shouldered changed by more than 30 percent. “We thought that’s a really notable shift,” Halevy says.

In one experiment, Black and white Americans were asked whom they blamed for racial tensions in the U.S. Presented with only those two groups to choose from, the participants placed nearly 70 percent of the blame on white Americans. When white Americans were broken up by political affiliation, participants placed over 80 percent of the blame on white Americans as a whole. Conversely, when Black Americans were broken down into political categories but white Americans remained “packed” as a single group, participants assigned 58 percent of the blame to white Americans and increased Black Americans’ share of the blame to over 40 percent.

The same shift was observed in another experiment in which participants were asked about who bears responsibility for the gender wage gap in the U.S. When people could only choose between men and women, roughly two-thirds of the blame was placed on men. When men were “unpacked” into racial categories that number shot up to over 80 percent. And when women were divided by race but men were not, respondents apportioned the blame almost equally between women and men.

The Blame Game

Halevy says these big swings in blame can be partly attributed to a phenomenon known as partition dependence, a cognitive process where people assign more importance to a specific category when it’s broken into smaller parts. At the same time that partition dependence causes people to focus more intently on the constituent parts of the whole, another phenomenon is also at work: People want to distance themselves and the group they identify with from blame.

Presented with more choices of whom to find fault with, participants in Halevy and his colleagues’ experiments were more likely to point fingers at other subgroups within the larger category with which they identified. For example, breaking up all Israelis into different political factions allows, say, right-wing Israelis to put more blame on left-wing and centrist groups, while deflecting culpability from their own subgroup.

“I think what we’re doing is we’re giving them an opportunity to be a little bit more perceptive, by highlighting an opportunity to differentially blame different subgroups within their group,” Halevy says.

The experiments also illustrate just how complicated our identities are once we get beyond broad categories like race, nationality, and gender. “There are so many nested levels of identification for individuals,” Halevy says. “We’re building on that by having people identify either with a smaller group that’s more exclusive or with the larger group.”

The finding that assignments of blame are fairly malleable carries important implications for both easing and exacerbating conflicts. “Like all tools, they can be used for good or evil,” Halevy says. “These tools enable journalists, educators, authors, and other influencers to shape narratives of intergroup conflict by shifting our perceptions of where the blame lies.”

Yet Halevy is hopeful that being more aware of these dynamics will help people understand how their moral judgments can be influenced by seemingly trivial changes to the way questions are asked. “I would love people to be wiser consumers of survey data,” he says. For instance, he urges people to be mindful that support for positions and policies shown in political polls or news stories is highly dependent on how the questions were asked.

The narratives of intergroup conflict we see and hear around us, Halevy concludes, are continuously shaped by storytellers’ choices to focus our attention on different levels of social categories: “Choosing how we portray the parties in an intractable conflict can sway how people think about who is to blame for the conflict.”

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