TED | Robb Willer: How To Have Better Political Conversations

Posted on February 7, 2017

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So you probably have the sense, as most people do, that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s been in really any of our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes. In study after study, we find that liberals and conservatives have grown further apart. They increasingly wall themselves off in these ideological silos, consuming different news, talking only to like-minded others and more and more choosing to live in different parts of the country.

0:57 And I think that most alarming of all of it is seeing this rising animosity on both sides. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, more and more they just don’t like one another. You see it in many different ways. They don’t want to befriend one another. They don’t want to date one another. If they do, if they find out, they find each other less attractive, and they more and more don’t want their children to marry someone who supports the other party, a particularly shocking statistic.

1:30 You know, in my lab, the students that I work with, we’re talking about some sort of social pattern — I’m a movie buff, and so I’m often like, what kind of movie are we in here with this pattern? So what kind of movie are we in with political polarization? Well, it could be a disaster movie. It certainly seems like a disaster. Could be a war movie. Also fits. But what I keep thinking is that we’re in a zombie apocalypse movie.

2:03 Right? You know the kind. There’s people wandering around in packs, not thinking for themselves, seized by this mob mentality trying to spread their disease and destroy society. And you probably think, as I do, that you’re the good guy in the zombie apocalypse movie, and all this hate and polarization, it’s being propagated by the other people, because we’re Brad Pitt, right? Free-thinking, righteous, just trying to hold on to what we hold dear, you know, not foot soldiers in the army of the undead. Not that. Never that.

2:41 But here’s the thing: what movie do you suppose they think they’re in? Right? Well, they absolutely think that they’re the good guys in the zombie apocalypse movie. Right? And you’d better believe that they think that they’re Brad Pitt and that we, we are the zombies. And who’s to say that they’re wrong? I think that the truth is that we’re all a part of this. And the good side of that is that we can be a part of the solution.

3:11 So what are we going to do? What can we do to chip away at polarization in everyday life? What could we do to connect with and communicate with our political counterparts? Well, these were exactly the questions that I and my colleague, Matt Feinberg, became fascinated with a few years ago, and we started doing research on this topic. And one of the first things that we discovered that I think is really helpful for understanding polarization is to understand that the political divide in our country is undergirded by a deeper moral divide.

3:46 So one of the most robust findings in the history of political psychology is this pattern identified by Jon Haidt and Jesse Graham, psychologists, that liberals and conservatives tend to endorse different values to different degrees. So for example, we find that liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do. And Matt and I were thinking that maybe this moral divide might be helpful for understanding how it is that liberals and conservatives talk to one another and why they so often seem to talk past one another when they do.

4:38 So we conducted a study where we recruited liberals to a study where they were supposed to write a persuasive essay that would be compelling to a conservative in support of same-sex marriage. And what we found was that liberals tended to make arguments in terms of the liberal moral values of equality and fairness. So they said things like, “Everyone should have the right to love whoever they choose,” and, “They” — they being gay Americans — “deserve the same equal rights as other Americans.” Overall, we found that 69 percent of liberals invoked one of the more liberal moral values in constructing their essay, and only nine percent invoked one of the more conservative moral values, even though they were supposed to be trying to persuade conservatives. And when we studied conservatives and had them make persuasive arguments in support of making English the official language of the US, a classically conservative political position, we found that they weren’t much better at this. 59 percent of them made arguments in terms of one of the more conservative moral values, and just eight percent invoked a liberal moral value, even though they were supposed to be targeting liberals for persuasion.

5:48 Now, you can see right away why we’re in trouble here. Right? People’s moral values, they’re their most deeply held beliefs. People are willing to fight and die for their values. Why are they going to give that up just to agree with you on something that they don’t particularly want to agree with you on anyway? If that persuasive appeal that you’re making to your Republican uncle means that he doesn’t just have to change his view, he’s got to change his underlying values, too, that’s not going to go very far.

6:17 So what would work better? Well, we believe it’s a technique that we call moral reframing, and we’ve studied it in a series of experiments. In one of these experiments, we recruited liberals and conservatives to a study where they read one of three essays before having their environmental attitudes surveyed. And the first of these essays was a relatively conventional pro-environmental essay that invoked the liberal values of care and protection from harm. It said things like, “In many important ways we are causing real harm to the places we live in,” and, “It is essential that we take steps now to prevent further destruction from being done to our Earth.” Another group of participants were assigned to read a really different essay that was designed to tap into the conservative value of moral purity. It was a pro-environmental essay as well, and it said things like, “Keeping our forests, drinking water, and skies pure is of vital importance.” “We should regard the pollution of the places we live in to be disgusting.” And, “Reducing pollution can help us preserve what is pure and beautiful about the places we live.” And then we had a third group that were assigned to read just a nonpolitical essay. It was just a comparison group so we could get a baseline.

7:33 And what we found when we surveyed people about their environmental attitudes afterwards, we found that liberals, it didn’t matter what essay they read. They tended to have highly pro-environmental attitudes regardless. Liberals are on board for environmental protection. Conservatives, however, were significantly more supportive of progressive environmental policies and environmental protection if they had read the moral purity essay than if they read one of the other two essays. We even found that conservatives who read the moral purity essay were significantly more likely to say that they believed in global warming and were concerned about global warming, even though this essay didn’t even mention global warming. That’s just a related environmental issue. But that’s how robust this moral reframing effect was.

8:16 And we’ve studied this on a whole slew of different political issues. So if you want to move conservatives on issues like same-sex marriage or national health insurance, it helps to tie these liberal political issues to conservative values like patriotism and moral purity. And we studied it the other way, too. If you want to move liberals to the right on conservative policy issues like military spending and making English the official language of the US, you’re going to be more persuasive if you tie those conservative policy issues to liberal moral values like equality and fairness.

8:53 All these studies have the same clear message: if you want to persuade someone on some policy, it’s helpful to connect that policy to their underlying moral values. And when you say it like that it seems really obvious. Right? Like, why did we come here tonight? Why —

9:12 It’s incredibly intuitive. And even though it is, it’s something we really struggle to do. You know, it turns out that when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position. We kept saying when we were designing these reframed moral arguments, “Empathy and respect, empathy and respect.” If you can tap into that, you can connect and you might be able to persuade somebody in this country.

9:48 So thinking again about what movie we’re in, maybe I got carried away before. Maybe it’s not a zombie apocalypse movie. Maybe instead it’s a buddy cop movie.

10:03 Just roll with it, just go with it please.

10:07 You know the kind: there’s a white cop and a black cop, or maybe a messy cop and an organized cop. Whatever it is, they don’t get along because of this difference. But in the end, when they have to come together and they cooperate, the solidarity that they feel, it’s greater because of that gulf that they had to cross. Right? And remember that in these movies, it’s usually worst in the second act when our leads are further apart than ever before. And so maybe that’s where we are in this country, late in the second act of a buddy cop movie — torn apart but about to come back together. It sounds good, but if we want it to happen, I think the responsibility is going to start with us.

10:53 So this is my call to you: let’s put this country back together. Let’s do it despite the politicians and the media and Facebook and Twitter and Congressional redistricting and all of it, all the things that divide us. Let’s do it because it’s right. And let’s do it because this hate and contempt that flows through all of us every day makes us ugly and it corrupts us, and it threatens the very fabric of our society. We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.

11:53 Thank you.

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