With the 2016 election cycle ramping up, it seems like Americans are more politically polarized than ever. But a new study suggests that when reminded of a time when they experienced conflict, people are more open to hearing opposing views.
Writing in the July 2015 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science,Psychologists Chadly Stern from New York University and Tali Keilman from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that getting people to remember conflicting goals in their own personal lives reduced their tendency to overstate political differences between themselves and their partisan rivals.
In the study 800 survey participants were first asked their political affiliation – whether they identified as Democrats or Republicans. They were then asked whether they supported or opposed eight political stances. For instance, participants were asked whether they would support the legalization of marijuana use, or the banning of assault weapons.
Next, one group of participants was asked to write “about a time when two of the goals that they wanted to achieve and were important to them conflicted.” A control group was asked to write about what they did that morning.
Afterward participants were asked how they thought people in the other political party felt about the eight issues.
Stern and Keilman found that “a conflict mindset reduced participants’ tendency to consistently exaggerate” how different the attitudes of people in the opposing party are from their own attitudes on the issues. This held true when controlling for the amount of time people had to think about the issues.
In other words, when people contemplate conflict they have experienced in their own lives, perceived polarization between themselves and the other political group diminishes.
Social Psychological and Personality Science
Chadly Stern, New York University
Tali Kleiman, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem