The polarization of American politics is nothing new, but a November 2020 Pew Research poll revealed especially salient findings. Nine in 10 Americans were worried their opposing party’s victories would cause “lasting harm” to the country. Seventy-seven percent of Americans said the country was more divided than it was before Covid-19. Eight in 10 said their differences with other parties had to do with core “American values.”
Two months later, a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol. The phrase “polarization” felt quaint.
What is there to do? According to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there is an answer — although one the most stubborn might roll their eyes at. People of opposing beliefs have to talk to one another.
And not just talk — they need to share personal experiences. The study team found people are more likely to respect the stances of their political adversaries when those arguments are based on personal experiences rather than facts. The key to mutual respect and being seen as rational is getting real.
Kurt Gray is the study’s senior author and an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What happened at the Capitol, he says, was surprising to him in some sense. But, from a social, psychological stance, not so much.
“If you set up enough conditions, pointing in a certain direction, this is what happens,” Gray tells Inverse.
Of all the issues facing the United States today, Gray reasons the political divide “is probably the most important when it comes to social science.” Bridging it, in turn, can prove to be counterintuitive. Through surveys, Gray and his colleagues found the majority of liberals and conservatives both believe facts are what fosters mutual respect the most. However, an analysis of 15 other studies showed these beliefs were mistaken.
“I think when you’re having a discussion with your uncle in the MAGA hat or your liberal cousin from Oberlin, you think the way to convince them is to come armed with facts — statistics as ammunition,” Gray says. “If you just fire enough and fast enough, then you’ll change someone’s mind.”
“But it’s not like that. What you have to do is basically invite someone to see you as a rational, feeling human being. What people need to do is have conversations that expose their vulnerability.”
The power of a personal story — Whether it’s at the dinner table or the halls of Congress, rising political polarization affects all Americans. Gray and his team argue their research “provides a straightforward pathway for increasing moral understanding and decreasing political intolerance.”
Why are stories more effective than facts? The answer, in part, may come down to the idea our minds evolved to process personal narratives and be persuaded by stories. Facts, meanwhile, are subject to doubt. It’s easy to dismiss a fact (even if it’s true) or counter it with another fact. It’s harder to dismiss someone’s lived experience.
“What works is showing someone you’re concerned about your future, your family’s future, and the future of the nation,” Gray says.
“Show you’ve got genuine concerns. This is really hard to do in a conversation where you’re arming yourself for war. But it’s what we need to do.”
Overall, the personal experiences most likely to encourage respect from opponents were found to be issue-relevant and involve harm. Harm, in this case, means witnessing harm. For example, a coal miner who wants to support reduced environmental restrictions or a victim of a school shooting who supports gun regulations.
"What works is showing someone you’re concerned about your future, your family’s future, and the future of the nation."
These results might also explain why misinformation is so pervasive, and why some may only support social issues once someone in their life is personally affected. For example, you might be more inclined to believe anti-vaxxer misinformation after listening to a fearful mother. You might not expect a person like Dick Cheney to support gay marriage, but his daughter is a lesbian and he does.
Still, Gray says, “it’s a tricky, tricky topic.” Personal stories are effective, but do you have to perform emotional labor in order to get someone to empathize with your life?
“We shouldn’t have to require someone to have to speak their truth and tell us their experience. The value of someone’s life should be self-evident,” Gray says.
“And yet, hundreds of years in this country have made it clear that, unfortunately, the only way to get people to see the value of many positions is the sharing of personal experiences.”
Should people have to do it? No. But is it what drives a change of opinion? Research suggests yes.
Sharing, Gray says, does bridge a divide. And it’s ok, and even beneficial, for the person on the receiving end to feel uncomfortable.
The issue, he points out, remains far from solved. But this study does point a path forward.
Meanwhile, continued research can help inform more refined tools for our building-empathy toolkit. Gray points to the work of Juliana Schroeder, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research suggests simply engaging in conversation — even hearing the sound of another’s voice — is hugely important in influencing engagement. Talking, as simple as it may sound, can make a difference, and it’s better to talk by phone or in-person than online.