November 03, 2017

During the 2016 election, then-candidate Donald Trump advocated for what a lot of people thought were fringe ideas, like his proposed ban of Muslim immigrants. But we now know some of his ideas weren’t as unpopular as people thought. Many Americans agreed with him. So how does a “fringe” idea become mainstream? Leonardo Bursztyn explains how we express (and don’t express) fringe ideas - and what that can mean for politics.

Three Takeaways 

  • Burstyn ran an experiment in which he tested whether people would give to anti-immigration organizations - and if making their decisions public would have an impact. Turns out, when people felt anonymous, 50% donated. When they thought the decision might go public, 30% donated.
  • Norms are “what we think other people will think,” Bursztyn says, and they can influence whether or not people express fringe ideas. When norms stay the same, people have a good idea of how they’ll be judged. But when those norms start to change, it can be hard to figure out what other people will think, and how they will judge unpopular opinions.
  • When a leader endorses fringe ideas, it helps people figure out how popular those ideas are, and it becomes easier to adopt and express those ideas. Even those who disagree with a position are less likely to judge someone negatively for holding it, if they know lots of other people hold it too.

More reading 

Leonardo Bursztyn, fringe ideas, mainstream, Sci and Tech, innovation hub, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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