In the United States, political polarization seems to be at an all-time high these days. Some Americans even have trouble seeing political opponents as human beings, worthy of care and concern.

This inter-party hostility can threaten our relationships, as when we stop speaking to family and friends because of political differences. But it also affects our democracy as a whole. If we think people with other political viewpoints are not worthy of our care and respect, if we “hate” them more than we “love” our own side, how can we listen to each other and cooperate on solving social problems?

While political polarization may seem inevitable in our current climate, a recent study suggests we have the power to fight against it, at least on a one-to-one level. How? By encouraging people to see outgroup members as individuals and not define them solely on their political group membership.

Angel in the details

Advertisement X

In this study, a diverse group of conservative and liberal Americans were randomly assigned to read about a fictitious person (Alex) who belonged either to their own political party or the opposing party—or was not affiliated with either party.

In some cases, the narrative about Alex provided little more than her political identity and beliefs, while in others it included individual information, such as her age, her family status, her job, or how she felt that day. After reading about Alex, participants were asked to say how strongly they held negative feelings toward Alex, dehumanized her, cared about her welfare, or thought of her as immoral.

When Alex was of the opposing political party, people rated her less positively than when she was of the same party or politically neutral—no big surprise. But, when people were given more individual information about her, they rated her more positively in all these ways—more likable, human, moral, and worthy of care—than when little information beyond her political party was provided.

Lead researcher Jonah Koetke believes this is because helping people look beyond labels helps us see them as more than just caricatures, based on stereotypes.

“People are motivated to see their own group as separate from other groups, and part of that is seeing an outgroup as homogeneous,” says Koetke. “But, if you see beyond [group status]—learn something about someone’s job, family life, day-to-day experiences—it buffers against just seeing them as a kind of algorithm.”

Less hostility, more kindness

Though Koetke was encouraged by the strength of these findings, he didn’t know if lessening hostility would lead to better behavior, too. That’s what the next part of the experiment aimed to find out.

Participants were shown an X feed from Alex that identified her as either from the same or the opposite political party and provided either more individual information or not. For example, one tweet might say “Just watched the Republican National Convention! Great speakers!” (identifying her political identity), while a separate tweet might say, “Just took a personality quiz online. It says that I am thoughtful, introverted, and trusting. I think these are pretty accurate!” (individuating her somewhat).

After reading the feed, people rated Alex on various things connected to her “humanness,” such as how “refined and cultured” or “emotional, responsive, and warm” she was, or how much she experienced pleasure or had personal agency. They also rated how warm and caring they felt toward her and how moral she seemed.

Then, the participants were shown an additional tweet by Alex either for or against raising taxes (worded according to her political party’s views) and asked to respond with their own tweet. People not familiar with the experiment rated the tweets on how civil they were in terms of communicating understanding and warmth, while not expressing antagonism toward Alex.

Again, people given more individual information about Alex (as an outgroup member) liked her better and rated her as more human, worthier of care, and more moral than those only provided information about her political party. In addition, they wrote tweets that expressed less antagonism and more understanding—something Koetke finds heartening.

“Negativity on Twitter [which was recently renamed X] begets more negativity and becomes an ever-increasing cycle, especially relating to moral and political topics,” says Koetke. “So, showing that even just reading a few more things about somebody might make us less inclined to post a very negative thing towards somebody is important.”

Reducing antagonism beyond individuals

This effect didn’t just happen at an individual level, though. When Koetke and his colleagues showed participants Alex’s (supposed) social network, where closest friends might be assumed to share her opposing political beliefs, they found that participants rated friends up to two degrees removed from Alex more warmly, too. This means that the positive effects of individuating one person from an outgroup might spread to other members of that group, too, even if it happens gradually.

“Individuating information is unlikely to affect perceptions of the whole outgroup, but it will start to impact perceptions of these social networks,” says Koetke. “And through that, we figure, it can magnify into larger change over time.”

Koetke’s findings mirror prior research finding that connecting with people on an individual level helps reduce prejudice across social divides—as long as that connection is positive. Unfortunately, social media interactions across political divides can be pretty negative and feed a monolithic view of the opposing side. Even in real life, few of us take the time to have direct contact with others holding different political views—and the contact we have isn’t guaranteed to be positive, either.

Koetke admits this can be a problem for making use of individuating people.

“If we don’t have a lot of experience with outgroup members, or if those experiences go badly, we just cycle that into our internal perception of the outgroup,” he says. “That’s just going to reinforce negative perceptions we have.”

Creating common spaces

That’s where “bridging” programs, like Living Room Conversations or Braver Angels, may offer a safer space for having positive connection between members of different political parties. By creating a way for people from opposing sides to learn more about each other and see each other as individuals, while still allowing for disagreement, these kinds of efforts can help lessen political animosity and create more respectful dialogue.

Still, not everyone is motivated to join in these bridging efforts, and that’s where creating a norm around doing so may be important, says Koetke. He points to the Stanford Strengthening Democracy Project, which found that having political candidates from both parties promoting more civility toward the other side was important for reducing political polarization.

  • Bridging Differences Playbook

    Bridging Differences Playbook

    Learn research-based strategies to promote positive dialogue and understanding

    Read It Now

“If we think that even a small, but growing minority of people are trying to go across a divide to learn about the other side, this seems to be very powerful for motivating people to try it themselves,” says Koetke.

In the meantime, we can all do our part to try to humanize our political opponents. Doing so might not only make our elections less caustic, but may lead to better, more cooperative problem solving no matter the outcome of our elections.

“Whether it’s getting to know somebody beyond an initial impression, seeing someone as an individual is really important for overcoming political divides,” says Koetke. “Putting in effort to learn about somebody matters.”

GreaterGood Tiny Logo Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?
You May Also Enjoy
blog comments powered by Disqus