Mathematical models show that we are moving towards a more liberal world
Public opinion changes over time – and it is becoming more and more liberal. Kimmo Eriksson, Professor of Mathematics and Doctor in Social Psychology at Mälardalen University, has investigated opinion trends on several moral issues in the US and England. These two countries have different political cultures and systems, different media landscapes and various levels of religiousness. Despite this, his study shows that the opinion trends in these countries are practically identical.
“This strongly suggests that a general process lies behind these changes. Our research shows that we are moving towards an even more liberal world. The liberal tendencies are continuing and they’re growing stronger. The same gradual change towards more liberal views is taking place both in groups in society who already are more liberal in their views and in the groups who tend to have more conservative opinions,” says Kimmo Eriksson.
Wants to understand how opinions change over time
The research on changes of opinion is being conducted in cooperation with Pontus Strimling, Research Leader at the Institute for Futures Studies. They have chosen to describe the process that they believe is behind changes of opinion as a "moral argument theory”. The research focuses on understanding how people’s opinions change over time, which is important to be able to understand and to predict societal changes. In addition, the study has been published recently in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.
“It’s important to understand how public opinion works since it has great significance for the political decisions made and the social norms that prevail in society,” says Kimmo Eriksson.
Combines social psychology with mathematics
To produce these changes in opinions, Kimmo Eriksson and Pontus Strimling have combined social psychology and mathematical models.
“Firstly, knowledge of social psychology is needed regarding what causes individuals to change their views or behaviour. After this, mathematical models are needed of how individuals in a population interact. Based on this knowledge, we can then make predictions about what change will be made at the population level,” says Kimmo Eriksson.
Such models are called “dynamic systems” and they can be analysed using mathematical methods or by simulation with the help of computers. Accordingly, the mathematical models give predictions which are eventually tested against the actual changes of opinion over time.
Political systems and political discourse are influential
Isolated events can give temporarily dramatic effects at the societal level – such as the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in October 2010 or Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes which began in August 2018. However, this is not something that the mathematical models can predict. By contrast, the models can predict the long-term process leading to a change in opinion at the population level over time, which are called long-term trends.
The next step in the research is to refine the mathematical model to take account of individual differences, for example, how much people engage in political discussions.
“When we include this in the model, we get the prediction that those who are very active in political discussions and participate in the political discourse will change their opinions more quickly and thereby “jump the queue” in the change of opinion,” concludes Kimmo Eriksson.
Here’s what the “moral argument theory” looks like in brief:
- Some arguments are more generally accepted than others.
- Certain opinions are supported by generally accepted arguments, other opinions are supported by less accepted arguments.
- Over time, the opinions which are supported by generally accepted arguments will gradually become more common in society.
- The difference in valuation of arguments is particularly clear among groups with liberal opinions (in the American sense).