Published April 11, 2018
People disagree all the time, but not all disagreements lead to the same levels of stress.
Even though people can be passionate about their favorite sport teams, they can argue about which basketball team is the best without destroying friendships. In the workplace, co-workers can often dispute strategies and approaches without risking a long-term fallout.
Political conversations, on the other hand, seem to have become especially challenging in recent years. Stories of tense Thanksgiving dinners and of Facebook friends being unfriended have become commonplace.
Why does this happen?
Our research — and related research in political psychology — suggest two broad answers.
First, our work shows that divisive topics — issues that are polarizing, or on which there’s no general society-wide consensus — can evoke feelings of anxiety and threat. That is, simply considering these topics appears to put people on guard.
Second, research on moral conviction by psychologist Linda Skitka and her colleagues suggests that attitudes linked to moral values can contribute to social distancing. In other words, if someone considers their position on an issue to be a question of right versus wrong or good versus evil, they’re less likely to want to interact with a person who disagrees on that issue.
An additional social obstacle goes beyond mere disagreement. Consider two individuals who oppose the death penalty.
One person may think the death penalty is morally wrong, whereas the other person may believe the death penalty is ineffective at deterring crime. Although both individuals may strongly support their position, the first person holds this attitude with moral conviction.
Research by Skitka and her colleagues highlights the social consequences of these “moral mandates.” When it’s a matter of right or wrong, people become less tolerant of others who hold the opposite view. Specifically, individuals with stronger moral convictions tended to not want to associate with those who disagreed with them on certain issues. This social distancing was reflected both in survey responses — “would be happy to be friends with this person” — and even physical distance, like placing a chair farther away from a person with an opposing view.
Of course, no one is ever going to agree on every issue. But it’s important for people to learn about where others are coming from in order to reach a compromise.
Unfortunately, compromise or consensus is more difficult to come by if people start out the conversation feeling threatened. And if individuals feel that someone who holds an opposite view is simply a bad person, the conversation may never happen at all.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a stranger or friends; the possibility of exclusion or avoidance increases when a divisive topic is raised.
There’s no easy solution. Sometimes raising these topics may reveal irreconcilable differences. But other times, a willingness to approach difficult topics calmly — while truly listening to the other side — may help people find common ground or promote change.
It might also be helpful to take a step back. A disagreement on a single issue — even a morally charged one — isn’t necessarily grounds for discontinuing a friendship. On the other hand, focusing on other shared bonds and morals can salvage or strengthen the relationship.