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Why We Shut Ourselves Off From Opposing Viewpoints

New research points to some deep-seated psychological reasons we prefer to retreat into our ideological silos.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Interested in an opportunity to earn easy money? All you have to do is spend a couple of minutes reading eight statements that challenge your point of view on a political issue. Who would turn down that offer?

According to revealing new research, the answer is: most of us.

Our desire “to avoid listening to people with opposing ideals” is stronger than we realize, writes a research team led by University of Winnipeg psychologist Jeremy Frimer. It reports this pull is equally strong for liberals and conservatives, is not limited to Americans, and is rooted in deep-seated psychological needs.

It’s long been clear that politically minded people have a tendency to retreat into their respective ideological enclaves — which is all too easy to do today, thanks to cable television and the Internet. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Frimer and colleagues Linda Skitka and Matt Motyl explore the origins of this democracy-endangering impulse.

They describe a series of experiments, the first of which featured 202 Americans recruited online. After indicating whether they supported or opposed same-sex marriage, participants were given two options.

They could read a series of statements that supported their position, and answer some simple questions indicating they understood the basic arguments. Once they finished, they would automatically be entered into a drawing to win $7.

Or they could read a series of statements supporting the opposite position, and complete the same simple procedure. In that case, they’d be entered into a drawing to win $10.

“Sixty-three percent of participants chose to give up a chance at $3 to avoid hearing from the other side,” the researchers report. The numbers were quite similar for people on opposite sides of the issue: 64 percent of same-sex marriage supporters passed up the chance to read an opposing viewpoint, as did 61 percent of opponents.

We need to acknowledge the depths of our differences, and accept the discomfort of having our assumptions challenged.

The researchers repeated the experiment with another set of 245 Americans and got the same results: Sixty-one percent of supporters and 63 percent of opponents chose not to read the views of people on the other side, thereby passing up the possibility of winning more money.

Additional studies found this same dynamic applied when asking about other issues and personalities, and among Canadians as well as Americans. What’s more, “we also found greater desire to hear from like- vs. unlike-minded others on questions such as preferred beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), seasons (spring vs. autumn), airplane seats (aisle vs. window), and sports league (NFL vs. NBA),” the researchers write.

So why do we have so little curiosity about how other people think? Primer and his colleagues addressed that question with a final study that returned to the same-sex marriage issue. Participants — 236 Americans — were asked “How interested are you in hearing someone tell you all about why he/she believes that same-sex marriage should (or should not) be legal?”

After they gave their answer on a scale of negative 100 (very uninterested) to 100 (very interested), all were asked “Why do you feel that way?” To tease out an accurate answer, they were presented with a series of statements and asked the degree to which each reflected their feelings. These included the assertions that hearing an opposing viewpoint would “cause me to feel angry,” “require a lot of effort on my part,” “likely result in a fight,” and “harm my relationship with the speaker.”

The researchers found participants avoided hearing out the other side for two basic reasons. They feared doing so “would create cognitive dissonance” — the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs. And they felt it would “undermine a shared reality with the speaker” — that is, disrupt the comforting delusion that we hold similar values.

So, seriously considering the views of people whose views are shaped by different ethical frameworks requires us to step out of our comfort zones in a very real way. We need to acknowledge the depths of our differences, and accept the discomfort of having our assumptions challenged.

The future of our democracy may depend on whether enough of us can summon the courage required to do just that.