Friendship tends to be based on some kind of shared experience: growing up with someone, working with them, or having the same interests. Politics is an important factor too, with research suggesting that we can be pretty intolerant of those with different political positions — not an ideal starting point for friendship.
This can have a significant and tangible impact. One Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, found 16.4% of people had stopped talking to a family member or friend after Trump was elected, while 17.4% had blocked someone they care about on social media.
So what happens when you find out a trusted friend has different politics to you? They don’t fare well, according to a new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships authored by Elena Buliga and Cara MacInnis from the University of Calgary, Canada.
Participants were recruited from across the political spectrum: 70 identified as Republicans, whilst 142 described themselves as Democrats. As well as reporting their political identity, participants rated their opinions on social and economic policy, on a scale from very liberal (0) to very conservative (10). They also rated how important their political orientation is to their identity and completed a “feeling thermometer”, which measured how favourably or unfavourably they felt towards members of other political parties.
After the pre-test measures were complete, participants were presented with four vignettes in a random order. In the first, participants were asked to imagine meeting someone at a party with the same political views as them; another vignette detailed the same experience, only this time the potential friend had different political views.
In the final two vignettes, participants were instructed to think about a real or hypothetical close friend whose views they were not already aware of and asked to imagine a conversation in which their friend outlined their political beliefs. In the first, participants imagined their friend espousing a shared political belief, while in the second they turned out to be a member of a political out-group instead.
After reading each of the four vignettes, participants rated how excited, happy, pleased, satisfied, surprised, upset, anxious and worried they would feel in the situation and answered questions on how willing they would be to maintain that friendship (e.g. “would you make an effort to spend time with this person?”). They also rated their trust and satisfaction in, and hope for, the ongoing friendship.
Finally, participants indicated how much they would expect their feelings to change towards the person in each vignette, as well as rating attitudes towards them from “extremely unfavourable” to “extremely favourable”.
Overall, people were more positive towards in-group members than out-group members: participants had more trust in and hope for the longevity of relationships with both friends and strangers of the same political leanings as them than they did even for established friends with different politics. Positive emotions were highest when discovering a friend had shared beliefs, followed by the stranger with shared beliefs. Out-group friends and out-group strangers tailed behind.
Negative affect was also highest for the friend with different political views, followed by the out-group stranger. This makes sense — you’re likely to be much more invested (and therefore much more disappointed) in a friend than someone you don’t know.
It wasn’t clear, however, who exactly participants were imagining when asked to think of a friend, meaning there may have been significant variation in closeness and therefore in emotional response; some participants may also have been thinking of a hypothetical friend, which could also have had an impact on the results. The measures also only looked at immediate reactions — it’s very possible that after discovering a friend is of a different political persuasion, participants could calm down or mellow out over a longer period of time.
It’s probably also important to note that the results aren’t necessarily going to represent every relationship — lots of people have cherished friends with very different politics to their own. How those relationships are successfully managed and navigated may be one focus for future research.