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Making it personal: Considering an issue’s relevance to your own life could help reduce political polarization

Rebecca Dyer, Hamilton College and Keelah Williams, Hamilton College, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Political polarization can be reduced when people are told to think about the personal relevance of issues they might not care about at first glance.

We, a social psychologist and an evolutionary psychologist, decided to investigate this issue with two of our undergraduate students, and recently published our results in the science journal PLOS One.

Previous research has found that conservatives tend to judge “disrespecting an elder” to be more morally objectionable behavior than liberals do. But when we had liberals think about how “disrespecting an elder” could be personally relevant to them – for example, someone being mean to their own grandmother – their immorality assessments increased, becoming no different than conservatives’.

When people consider how an issue relates to them personally, an otherwise neutral event seems more threatening. This, in turn, increases someone’s perception of how morally objectionable that behavior is.

The pattern was different with conservative participants, however. When conservatives considered the personal relevance of what is typically considered a more “liberal” issue – a company lying about how much it is contributing to pollution – their judgments of how immoral that issue is did not significantly change.

Contrary to what we expected, both conservatives and liberals cared relatively equally about this threat even without thinking about its personal relevance. While some people did focus on the environmental aspect of the threat, as we intended, others focused more on the deception involved, which is less politically polarized.

 

All participants, no matter their politics, consistently rated more personally relevant threats as more immoral. The closer any threat feels, the bigger – and more wrong – someone considers it to be.

In the United States today, it can feel like conservatives and liberals are living in different realities. Our research speaks to a possible pathway for narrowing this gap.

People often think of moral beliefs as relatively fixed and stable: Moral values feel ingrained in who you are. Yet our study suggests that moral beliefs may be more flexible than once thought, at least under certain circumstances.

To the extent that people can appreciate how important issues – like climate change – could affect them personally, that may lead to greater agreement from people across the political spectrum.

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