Considering the relevance of an issue to your own life can help reduce political polarization

By | February 21, 2024

Political polarization can be reduced if people are told to think about the personal relevance of issues that may not interest them at first glance.

We, a social psychologist and an evolutionary psychologist, decided to investigate this problem together with two of our students and recently published our results in the scientific journal PLOS One.

Previous research has shown that conservatives tend to view “disrespecting an elder” as morally reprehensible behavior than do liberals. But when we got liberals to think about how “disrespecting an elder” might be personally relevant to them—for example, someone being mean to their own grandmother—their assessments of immorality increased and became no different than those of conservatives.

When people think about how an issue affects them personally, an otherwise neutral event seems more threatening. This in turn increases one’s perception of how morally reprehensible that behavior is.

However, among conservative participants, the pattern was different. When conservatives considered the personal relevance of what is typically considered a more “liberal” issue — a company lying about the extent to which it contributes to pollution — their assessment of how immoral that issue is did not change significantly.

Contrary to what we expected, both conservatives and liberals cared relatively equally about this threat, even without considering its personal relevance. While some people focused on the environmental aspect of the threat, as we intended, others focused more on the deception involved, which is less politically polarized.

All participants, regardless of political background, consistently rated more personally relevant threats as immoral. The closer a threat feels, the bigger – and more wrong – someone views it.

Why it matters

In the United States today, it can seem as if conservatives and liberals live in different realities. Our research points to a possible path to narrowing this gap.

Two rows of seated people, seen from the back, listen to four people facing the audience.

People often view moral beliefs as relatively fixed and stable: moral values ​​feel deeply rooted in who you are. Yet our research suggests that moral beliefs may be more flexible than once thought, at least under certain circumstances.

To the extent that people can realize how important issues – such as climate change – can affect them personally, it can lead to greater agreement among people across the political spectrum.

From a broader perspective, personal relevance is just one dimension of something called “psychological distance.” People can perceive objects or events as close or distant from their lives in different ways: for example, whether an event occurred recently or long ago, and whether it is real or hypothetical.

Our research shows that psychological distance can be an important variable to take into account in all kinds of decision-making, including financial decisions, deciding where to study or what job to take. By thinking more abstractly or concretely about what is at stake, people can come to different conclusions and improve the quality of their decisions.

What is still not known

A number of important questions remain. One has to do with the anomalous pattern we observed among conservative participants, whose assessment of a stereotypically “liberal” threat did not change much when they considered its relevance to their own lives. Would a different threat – perhaps gun violence or mounting student debt – lead to a different pattern? Alternatively, conservatives may be more rigid in their beliefs than liberals, as some studies have suggested.

Furthermore, how can these findings contribute to actual problem solving? Is increasing the personal relevance of otherwise neutral threats the best way to help people see eye to eye?

Another option could be to push things in the opposite direction. Making potential threats seem less personally relevant, and not more so, could be an effective way to bring people together to work on a realistic solution.

The Research Brief is a brief look at interesting academic work.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Rebecca Dyer, Hamilton College and Keelah Williams, Hamilton College

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The authors do not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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