A cure for political polarization? New research gives some hope.
We now assume we are living in a red-state/blue-state age, with polarization the overriding reality, political partisans perpetually talking past one another, and gridlock the norm.
But new social science research suggests a somewhat more complex reality, at least when it comes to how supporters of rival presidential candidates view one another. The research suggests a greater respect for one another's views than generally assumed. The possibility that there's mutual empathy could have practical impact on attempts to reach across the political aisle and getting things done.
The work comes from Yesim Orhun of the University of Michigan and Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago -- both marketing specialists at their respective graduate schools of business -- and is partly based on surveys conducted during the 2008 election. "How Own Evaluations Impact Beliefs about Others Whose Choices are Known" will be published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
Orhun and Urminsky asked several hundred people to rate their approval of candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, depending on whom they preferred, and then to estimate the approval ratings given to the other candidate by his supporters.
What they found was a greater link than they had imagined between an individual's support of his or her candidate and what they assumed about partisans of the opposing candidate. The more a voter liked Obama, the more they assumed that a McCain supporter really liked McCain. Conversely, the more an Obama voter disliked McCain, the more they tended to assume McCain voters didn't like Obama.
What strikes the researchers as notable is that individuals may use their personal views as a de facto template for estimating the attitudes of those on the other side of a divide.
Said Urminsky in a phone chat: "Even if others' choices are different from ours, we continue to see others as broadly similar to ourselves. We think to ourselves, 'How they reached their decision must be similar to how I reached mine.' So, if you find yourself using your own views to make sense of the opposing political views of a relative or neighbor, you are not alone. It's how we see across the divide."
"Most psychology research," Urminsky noted, "had suggested that the Obama voter would not rely on her own views to make sense of McCain voters, because she would see them as too different from herself." In related questioning, they found what they deem a similar dynamic when it comes to other choices we make, including as consumers looking to buy digital cameras, art, and video game consoles.
In some cases, said Urminsky, one finds no real relationship between the two variables -- meaning, how you rate a candidate doesn't affect your view of others. And, for sure, there are cases where voters assume that those supporting another candidate must hate theirs.
But, by and large, "what we found is that people drew a parallel. You vote for Candidate A and, when you are asked to estimate those supporting Candidate B, you believe that they probably feel about him as you do about your candidate."
Might this add to our understanding of the polarization we tend to lament?
"The accepted view in psychology is that when thinking of those different than you" -- in this case, "those who choose a different candidate -- there is a lack of empathy. You see them as aliens whom we can't make sense of. And, to cure polarization, people believe, one does need empathy."
"This suggests that when we think about others who are different than ourselves, we don't think of them as aliens. It suggests that this is not as big a divide to be bridged."
There are psychologists, Urminsky said, who argue that people tend to behave in ways that suggests that their rivals feel pain less intensely than they, seeing others as not as fully human as they are. His results don't directly refute that, but suggest that this prevailing view is simply not the full picture.
"The takeaway, politically, from our study is that there is reason for hope about polarization. For sure, some folks are just strident by personality and you can't minimize that." But for the average voter, the study contends, the dominant tendency is not to dehumanize the other side but to believe that the other side simply holds views just as strongly. To the authors, that reality holds out some hope for a "more constructive form of polarization," as Urminsky put it, "if we think of others as not just being blindly opposed to us."
Does this apply, say, to what both parties acknowledge is the legislative inertia and ill will pervading the U.S. Congress?
"Well," said Urminsky, "I am going way beyond the data, since we didn't do the study with political activists or congressmen and don't know how it would apply with them. These were typical voters."
But "one explanation of our work might be that voters send to Congress polarizing candidates in the hope this will balance out the [current] administration. Voters assume that each side has its priorities. If that's true, compromise should be possible if you can come up with legislation that addresses the priorities of both."
"It's why hope springs eternal," said Urminsky.