New study finds that discussing political disagreements isn’t as unpleasant as people usually assume

A new study finds that people often overestimate the likelihood of animosity in political discussions.

It’s a piece of advice many of us have heard: avoid discussing politics and religion, especially with those who disagree with you.

The assumption is that such conversations will inevitably turn hostile and unpleasant.

But could this conventional wisdom be misguided? A study published on March 28 in the journal Psychological Science suggests that we might be unnecessarily avoiding conversations that could help bridge partisan divides.

Expectations vs. Reality in Political Discussions

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of experiments involving 1,264 participants recruited from the United States.

In the first experiment, In the first experiment, 450 U.S.-based adults were recruited online through research platform Prolific.

They were instructed to imagine having a 10-minute conversation with someone who either agreed or disagreed with them on one of nine potentially divisive topics, such as abortion, climate change, same-sex marriage, gun control, immigration, transgender rights, and the death penalty.

The researchers selected these topics because they were likely to elicit strong opinions and potential disagreement among participants.

People expected the “disagreement conversations” to be significantly less pleasant (an average of 3.37 on a 0-10 scale) than the agreement conversations (6.89 on the same scale).

As a result, the participants preferred to avoid the disagreement discussions.

But in the second experiment, 198 participants had actual 10-minute conversations with partners they either agreed or disagreed with on similar topics.

Surprisingly, their experiences in disagreement conversations (an average of 7.12) were just as positive as in agreement conversations (an average of 7.31), and significantly more positive than they had expected.

A third experiment with 216 participants further revealed that dialogues across disagreement were especially more positive than anticipated (8.41), compared to simply exchanging monologues (6.13).

The researchers also found that people underestimated how much common ground they would find in disagreement conversations.

In the second experiment, perceived similarity of opinion increased from 2.18 before the disagreement discussions to 5.69 afterwards, a much larger increase than in the agreement condition (from 7.73 to 9.27).

Insights and Implications

The findings suggest that we often underestimate the potential for finding common ground in disagreements.

The social aspects of conversation, such as sharing personal experiences and feeling heard, can help overcome divisions.

The authors argue that avoiding political discussions for fear of animosity may be misguided and could actually worsen polarization.

Instead, engaging in open conversations could help reduce partisan divides and fears.

The study points to the benefits of authentic communication and reducing self-censorship in our interactions.

“Mistakenly fearing a negative interaction may create misplaced partisan divides, not only keeping people from connecting with each other but also keeping people from learning about each other and from each other,” the researchers write.

Study information:

The study, titled “Misplaced Divides? Discussing Political Disagreement With Strangers Can Be Unexpectedly Positive,” was written by Kristina A. Wald, Michael Kardas, and Nicholas Epley.

It was published online on March 28, 2024, in Psychological Science.