HomeLearning CenterTalking Across the Aisle Isn’t Always Awful

Talking Across the Aisle Isn’t Always Awful

Originally published by Emily Reynolds for BPS

There are numerous topics we’re advised not to bring up in polite conversation — sex, religion, and politics being just a few examples. Yet although the latter topic is often seen as needlessly provocative, the idea of ‘talking across the divide’ remains compelling, with many regularly seeking to engage with (and sometimes change) views outside of their own political circles. There are even regular columns in national newspapers that ask whether we can bridge our political differences and find common ground. Often, the answer is yes.

So are we, on the whole, entering political discussions with the wrong expectations? According to new research published in Psychological Science, this may well be the case. 

Over the course of three studies, Kristina Wald and colleagues find that we underestimate how pleasant chats with political rivals can be, leading us to avoid conversations, and potentially miss out on opportunities to learn and connect.

In the team’s first study, 471 participants considered nine politically divisive topics, such as abortion, climate change, and religion, then reported how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about them (e.g. “I support separating families at the U.S.–Mexico border as a deterrent for illegal immigration”). They were then asked to imagine having a conversation about one of these topics with someone who either agreed or disagreed with their view.

Participants then reported how much they felt they’d enjoy their imagined conversation, how awkward it would be, and how connected they’d feel to the other person. Finally, they indicated how much they would try to avoid or approach discussing the topic with their conversational partner.

As expected, those with politically discordant conversational partners had low expectations for how much they would like their partner and how much they would be liked, as well as how connected they felt they’d be. They also reported wanting to avoid conversations with these partners — though, overall, they weren’t particularly keen on having conversations about these topics with anyone, suggesting many of us want to avoid political discussions full stop.

The second study investigated whether these expectations played out in reality. This time, participants actually discussed a divisive issue with another participant who agreed or disagreed with them in person. Once matched and given a hot topic to discuss, pairs chatted about their position on the issue, how important it was to them, and why they felt so strongly.

Overall, participants underestimated how enjoyable these chats turned out to be, whether or not they shared common ground with their partners. Remarkably, however, this discrepancy was largest when meeting those they disagreed with. Very few reported having negative conversations at all, suggesting that productive discussions with those who have polar opposite views may be more widely possible, and enjoyable, than we assume.

In the final study, participants either had a video call with a partner they would either agree or disagree with politically, or record a monologue sharing their opinion on a particular topic before watching a similar recording from another participant.

Similar to the previous studies, ratings collected before and after these interactions showed that participants significantly underestimated how enjoyable conversations with people with discordant politics would be. When they simply had to listen to monologues rather than chat, however, their experiences were less positive, suggesting that the relational, connecting element of a two-way conversation is what made proceedings so interesting and enjoyable.

Whether or not these patterns would arise outside of lab settings is open to debate. Knowing you are taking part in a study, and being monitored by researchers, is likely to moderate aggressive or provocative behaviour compared to more everyday settings in which conversations can more easily escalate. Similarly, participants were strangers to one another — and as anyone who has had a political disagreement with a friend or family member will know, conversations on political divides which happen day after day are not always enjoyable. Looking at these elements in future studies could provide a more rounded picture of how fun such debates turn out to be in broader, real life settings. 

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