We Generally Prefer Political Allies Who Try To Understand Opponents’ Views

By Emily Reynolds

We often hear that we’re living in an age of polarisation and divisiveness, unable to transcend political boundaries to listen to those who we disagree with. But how do we feel about those people who share our views but who seek to understand opponents anyway?

This is the subject of a new study in Psychological Science, authored by the University of British Columbia’s Gordon Heltzel and Kristin Laurin. They find that while we generally prefer those who seek alternative views, this falters when they appear to be susceptible to changing sides.

In the first study, 233 participants read about four contentious topics — affirmative action, climate change, immigration and welfare — choosing which of two stances they agreed with more (e.g. “support tougher immigration policies” or “oppose tougher immigration policies”). They then read about two individuals, both of whom shared their beliefs about one of the issues. One of these individuals, however, sometimes watched news reports or read articles espousing alternative views, while the other did not. Participants then completed a “feeling thermometer”, indicating how they felt about the two individuals, as well as indicating their approval of them as a friend, teacher, and politician and selecting words to describe them.

Participants preferred the individual who sought alternative views, and this seemed to be because they felt they were more tolerant and rational. However, they also had greater concerns that this individual could adopt opposition views. This preference was also found in two follow-up studies with a similar procedure.

In the next study, participants again reported their views on four hot button topics and read about individuals who either sought or avoided alternative views. But this time, the participants also learned about the individual’s motivations: in one condition, participants read that the perspective-seeker had co-operative motives, trying to end conflict, while in another they read this individual had competitive motives, trying to advance their own cause through understanding counterarguments. Similarly, those who read about the perspective-avoider either learned that this individual wanted to stop fighting with people with opposing views (again, a co-operative motive), or that they did not want to betray their principles by speaking to the “enemy” (a competitive motive).

Participants again preferred those who sought different views to those who avoided different views. And while they liked both perspective-seekers similarly, they particularly disliked the “co-operative” individual who avoided seeking alternative views because of a dislike of conflict.

In a third study, participants indicated their stance on particular political issues before once again reading a vignette; this time, conditions were manipulated so some participants read about fully politically committed individuals while others read about those who were more on the fence. Unsurprisingly, participants preferred targets who were more committed to their own side, and again preferred those who sought rather than avoided different views — at least when they were committed, or partially committed, to their own side. However, when the individual was not committed to shared ideals, participants no longer preferred their seeking out different views, reflecting the concerns highlighted in the first study about potentially switching sides.

So, overall, when it comes to those who share our views, it seems there is a sweet spot. We prefer those who seek to understand and cooperate with opponents rather than avoid them, considering them tolerant and cooperative — but we also dislike them when they seem to validate opposing views and have the potential to change their minds, particularly when they appear less committed to shared political ideals.

This could be tricky ground to navigate for those hoping to hold onto friends with particularly strong ideological commitments. But if you run out of friends who share your beliefs, never fear — there’s always strangers.

Seek and Ye Shall Be Fine: Attitudes Toward Political-Perspective Seekers

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest