As the election season gets underway, liberals and conservatives are more polarized than ever, viewing the nation's problems—and potential solutions—in starkly different ways. Or are they?
In fact, many studies suggest we routinely overestimate just how different our positions are from those of our opponents. Bad, oversimplified journalism, along with the tendency of many high-profile political candidates to take extreme positions, has obscured the fact that many of our differences are, in fact, bridgeable.
It would surely be good for our democracy—and inspire a more polite, productive political conversation—if we could accurately perceive our differences, rather than relying on caricatures of members of the other party. Newly published research suggests a simple way to do just that: Remind people of their own internal conflicts.
Those participants who had written about an internal conflict were less likely to overestimate the differences between members of their own political party and their opponents
Grappling with mutually incompatible goals—say, the need to study vs. the desire to party—activates "a mode of thinking characterized by the consideration of multiple, contradicting perspectives," write psychologists Chadly Stern of New York University and Tali Kleiman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.*
Adopting this mindset, they argue in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, can reduce the perceived distance between our own positions and those of our opponents.
Stern and Kleiman describe three studies, the first of which featured 230 Americans recruited online, 166 self-described Democrats and 64 Republicans. All began by stating their positions on eight issues, including gun control, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana. Half of the participants then wrote a short essay about "a time when two of their goals they wanted to achieve, and were important to them, conflicted." The other half wrote about their respective mornings. All were instructed to keep the situation they wrote about in mind throughout the study.
They then returned to the eight hot-button issues, and were asked to estimate what percentage of members of the other party held certain views, such as favoring the death penalty, or allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens after meeting certain requirements. Their estimates were then compared to the actual percentages of Democrats and Republicans holding those opinions, as measured by Gallup polls.
As the researchers suspected, those who had written about an internal conflict were less likely to overestimate the differences between members of their own political party and their opponents. Confirming this effect, participants who reported feeling higher levels of personal conflict engaged in less overestimation, on average, than those with only mildly conflicted feelings.
The two additional studies ruled out alternative explanations for these findings, and suggested a likely reason: Those who wrote about internal conflicts felt less of a perceived distance between themselves and members of the other political party. The realization that choices can be difficult, and that the best answers aren't always obvious, apparently softened attitudes toward one's ideological opponents.
Thinking about internal conflicts didn't just alter their perceptions on one or two issues: Participants who did so more accurately estimated differences between the parties across the board, the researchers report. This is a welcome shift, and it points to a way out of simplistic us-vs.-them thinking.
As Stern and Kleiman put it, the results suggest a way "to alter intergroup perceptions, and in turn facilitate social change." It's easier to reach consensus if we realize we're already part of the way there.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.
*UPDATE — July 28, 2015: This article originally misspelled psychologist Chadly Stern's name.