In new research, Guglielmo Briscese and Michèle Belot find that reminding Americans of shared values can open lines of communication and help reduce political polarization.
According to a global survey by Ipsos conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, most people believe that their societies are divided and that this division has worsened in the past ten years. This concerning trend seems to be supported by several studies documenting an increase in “affective” polarization and partisan animosity, especially in the United States, which means that ordinary Americans view their fellow citizens as hypocritical, selfish, and close-minded.
To address these concerns, various initiatives, such as “One Small Step” and “Braver Angels,” have emerged to bridge the partisan divide among Americans. These programs bring together people of different political affiliations in workshops, debates, or one-on-one conversations. There is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that these initiatives are effective in promoting dialogue and understanding, and social psychologists and economists have shown that contact between individuals with opposing views can bridge differences and reduce prejudice.
In light of these worrying trends in political polarization and the wealth of evidence on the potential benefits of intergroup contact, a question arises: Why have we not been successful in bridging the divide?
One of the main reasons why we struggle to bridge the divide is that we don’t often interact with people who hold different beliefs than ours. In the U.S., for example, many people live in areas where most of their neighbors share their political views, which limits their opportunities to meet people with opposing viewpoints. This insularity is even more apparent online, where algorithms are designed to show us content that aligns with our existing beliefs and interests.
However, even when opportunities for interaction do arise, they may not be beneficial if both parties feel that they have no common ground on fundamental values. In these cases, simply encouraging dialogue may not be enough to foster mutual understanding and cooperation. To bridge the divide, it’s crucial to find ways to connect with others across political and social differences, with an emphasis on shared values and goals.
To better understand how to bridge the divide between people with different political beliefs, we conducted a study with a representative sample of 2,507 Americans. Participants were given the opportunity to listen to recordings of their fellow citizens expressing their views on polarizing public policies: immigration, abortion laws, and gun ownership laws. In our study, we also tested whether emphasizing shared values could help to bridge differences. We divided participants into two treatment groups and compared them to a control group that received no additional information. Participants in treatment group 1 were told that the people who recorded the audio files shared their same preferences on basic norms of behavior, such as saying, “thank you” and “please” and respecting social etiquette. Those in treatment group 2 were told that they shared the same human rights values with the speakers, such as the right to life, liberty, and security, and the importance of not being held in slavery or being deprived of their property arbitrarily.
Our study found that the majority of Americans (more than two-thirds) are open to listening to views that differ from their own. Interestingly, the treatments we tested did not significantly increase this already high level of willingness to listen.
While in the aggregate, views on the polarizing policies of immigration, abortion laws, and gun ownership laws did not change significantly after participants listened to recordings of people with opposing views, 10% of individuals did report changing their opinions.
We also found that emphasizing common ground can help reduce polarization, particularly on the topics of abortion laws and, to some extent, immigration. Our results showed that more extreme opinions tended to shift towards the center when participants were reminded of shared values and beliefs.
These findings suggest that while changing overall public opinion on polarizing issues may be challenging, encouraging individuals to find common ground and emphasizing shared values could be an effective way to reduce polarization and promote greater understanding and cooperation between people with different political beliefs.
In today’s world, where individuals with opposing views often avoid communication both online and offline, bridging the gap on important policies can seem like an insurmountable challenge. However, our study confirms the idea that when individuals are encouraged to find common ground, contact can be effective in changing views. This is true whether the shared values are related to human rights or more trivial etiquette rules.
The good news is that our study found that most people are open to listening to others with different views, and a significant percentage of people are willing to change their opinions after engaging with those they disagree with. Importantly, we also found that emphasizing common ground can reduce polarization on polarizing policies such as immigration and abortion laws.
These findings provide hope for those working to reduce political polarization. Interventions that facilitate voluntary engagement between individuals with different views and highlight shared values may be effective in bridging the partisan gap. Ultimately, promoting open communication and finding common ground may be key to promoting greater understanding and cooperation between individuals with diverse political beliefs.
Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.