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One Way to Weaken Political Polarization

University of California-San Diego researchers find articulating your opponent's perspective, and being held accountable for doing so accurately, moves us closer to the center.
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(Photo: Jane0606/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jane0606/Shutterstock)

It’s not exactly a secret that American politics has become perilously polarized in recent years. We seem to be increasingly dismissive of the other side’s ideas, and this failure to engage with our opponents makes compromise extremely difficult.

Newly published research points to a way this rigidity can be relaxed. In a series of experiments, A University of California-San Diego research team led by psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld found “it was possible to decrease polarization of even strongly held attitudes about important, real-world political issues.”

The key, they write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is willingness to “consider the perspective of a specific person with an opposing viewpoint.” In other words, you need to understand your opponent well enough to be able to make an argument from their perspective.

But it isn’t enough to do this as an intellectual exercise. Rather, you need to take into account the fact that your ideological sparring partner—someone with whom you have established at least a superficial relationship—will be judging the accuracy of your thought experiment.

Participants were significantly more likely to shift their thinking toward their opponent’s position if they had written an essay from that person’s perspective.

“When people are held accountable to specific individuals they have met, they may be more likely to vividly imagine how another person could, in good faith, hold a view different from theirs,” Christenfeld and his colleagues write. “As a result, (they often) come to see that view as more reasonable than they have previously.”

The researchers describe two experiments that directly demonstrate this dynamic. The participants—85 university undergraduates in the first, 94 in the second—began by spending 10 minutes chatting with a fellow student they had just met.

They then read a scenario illustrating a hot-button issue—weight discrimination in the first experiment, abortion in the second. After recording their point of view on the subject (specifically, whether an overweight woman can be discriminated against, and whether a 16-year-old rape victim should be legally allowed to have an abortion), they were told their partner took the opposite position.

They then were asked to write a short essay either defending their own point of view or articulating the perspective of their partner. They were informed that “their partner would be reading what they wrote, and also that the two would be seeing each other again.”

After completing the assignment, they again filled out the form expressing their own position. They did so using two separate one-to-six scales, one measuring how “definite” they felt, the other stating “how strongly they held their position.”

The results of the two experiments were “remarkably consistent,” the researchers write. In both cases, participants were significantly more likely to shift their thinking toward their opponent’s position if they had written an essay from that person’s perspective.

What’s more, the researchers found no evidence that this effect “was limited to participants with weaker attitudes about the issue.”

A follow-up experiment found this shift did not occur when participants “were told that independent raters would assess the quality of their response.” It appears they needed to know they would be held accountable by their actual opponents.

The effect was also negated in an experiment where the two people did not actually meet. “Writing from the perspective of an unmet other, even with accountability, does not have the same effect as real interaction,” the researchers write.

One caveat is important here: The vast majority of participants initially took liberal positions (that is, anti-discrimination and pro-abortion rights), so the bulk of the shifting toward the center was done by those on the left. Further research will be needed to determine whether this sort of active, accountable perspective-taking similarly moves conservatives closer to the center.

These results bring to mind two previous studies. One found that a 20-minute talk with a gay stranger can shift one’s mind about same-sex marriage. These findings confirm the idea that a personal relationship, however short-lived, helps to open people’s minds.

The other is a 2013 study that found that we’re living in increasingly ideologically homogeneous communities. Surrounded by like-minded others, we’re less likely to run into people with different beliefs, and therefore less likely to spontaneously have the sort of encounter mimicked by these experiments.

So be thankful for that brother-in-law whose ideology is the opposite of yours. If co-existing peacefully at family gatherings is an important goal for both of you, you have an incentive to genuinely understand each other’s point of view. If you can articulate it to the other’s satisfaction, both of you may end up realizing you’re not as far apart as you thought.