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Tolerating Extreme Views

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

A functioning democracy requires that individuals be tolerant of contradictory points of view – even when the views of others may seem extreme. A diversity of ideas and opinions enriches perspectives, increasing the scope of ideas for innovation and large-scale societal growth. However, this diversity brings tension between freedom of speech and the need to protect individuals and society at large from the potential harm inherent in certain extreme points of view. This tension is characterized by a prominent theory of motivation known as regulatory focus theory, which proposes that individuals are promotion focused when concerned with achieving new possibilities or creating constructive change, and prevention focused when primarily concerned with security or minimizing loss. Some people prefer a promotion orientation to the world, while others prefer a more preventative approach.

Greater tolerance for extreme political views would be expected from more promotive-oriented individuals who value freedom of speech over maintaining the public order, while the reverse would predict lower tolerance. However, what happens when an argument is presented in a way that is inconsistent with the values of the individual – in other words when there is no fit between the description of the issue and the individual’s preferred orientation? For example, if an individual is more promotion focused, valuing free expression over security, what happens when the news media frames an issue in terms of security?

A recent study found that the way in which the news media frames an article matters, but only for individuals that are primarily concerned with security. Interestingly, individuals that valued security over freedom of speech were more tolerant of a group publicly expressing extreme views when an article framed the situation as about freedom of speech. However, these individuals were less tolerant when the same article was framed as a disruption in the public order (i.e. a threat to security). These findings suggest that, when reporting instances where extreme points of view are being expressed, members of the audience that are more security-focused will be particularly sensitive to differences in how the report is framed. Ideally, reporting of this kind should be framed in promotive terms: emphasizing gains in liberties rather than threats to security.

These authors have provided a novel and useful finding that can be applied to the crafting of news articles about contentious topics – a critical aspect of a functioning democracy.

Ramirez, C. Z., & Verkuyten, M. (2011). Values, media framing, and political tolerance for extremist groups. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(7), 1583-1602.


Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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