Political Passion Inspires Trust—Even From Opponents

New research finds that your peers—including your opponents—will respect your integrity if you speak emphatically about the social issues that matter to you.
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"Individuals who care about contentious social issues signal to observers that they have integrity, and thus can be trusted," according to new research.

There's a lot of evidence suggesting that Americans trust each other less and less. But new research suggests an unorthodox solution to our political divide: firmly expressing our political opinions, even when they might prove unpopular.

"Across five studies using a variety of contentious social issues, I found evidence that people trust others who demonstrate strong feelings about social issues, even when they disagree with or dislike them," reports Julian Zlatev of Harvard Business School. In contrast, he found "low rates of trust toward individuals who care little about these issues."

"Individuals who care about contentious social issues signal to observers that they have integrity, and thus can be trusted," Zlatev writes in the journal Psychological Science. Perhaps optimistically, he adds that this knowledge could inspire "interventions to help mitigate the growing ideological divide."

Perhaps Fox News and MSNBC viewers finally have a group they can both look down on: those frivolous people fixated on the Home Shopping Network.

Zlatev's first study featured 1,007 people recruited online. Each was asked to evaluate an earlier participant who had opined on one of five hot-button issues: capital punishment, abortion, gun control, animal testing, or physician-assisted suicide.

The earlier participant had indicated whether they felt the practice should be legal or illegal, and noted on a five-point scale how strongly they cared about the issue. The second participant then answered the same questions, and gave their impressions of the first participant.

Using a seven-point scale, they indicated their level of agreement with statements including "I can trust this person's word," "This person cares about honesty and truth," "This person is nice," and "This person is ethical."

Not surprisingly, people who were in agreement with the first participant rated them higher in integrity than those who disagreed. Still, whether there was agreement or not, "targets who cared more about the issue were seen as higher in integrity than targets who cared less," Zlatev reports.

These results were replicated in four follow-up studies, including one in which participants evaluated others who volunteered for either a pro-choice or anti-abortion organization. Trust levels were higher for people who took those actions than for those who expressed apathy about the issue.

It's not entirely clear why taking a strong stand signaled trust, even to opponents, during these experiments. "It may be that people infer traits such as kindness more generally from caring about social issues," Zlatev speculates. "Not caring about social issues may signal selfishness, [or] intentional or unintentional ignorance."

People who hold off on giving their opinions for fear of being judged might have it exactly backwards. Conveying apathy is what leads to harsh evaluations, at least in terms of trustworthiness. Better to speak your mind—and show that you care.

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