Series of essays on democracy.WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT HAVING A CONVERSATION with someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum, does it make your blood boil? Does the anticipation of how angry and frustrated you will feel lead you to avoid such a conversation? Do you suspect that if you got into it, you would thoroughly destroy your opponent’s arguments?

In my work as a decision scientist, I have focused on the psychology of disagreement and how people engage with opinions, judgments, and decisions that are different from their own. In dozens of experiments with thousands of people, I have found that many expectations people hold about disagreements are wrong.

Democracies are made healthier, and function better, when citizens listen to and understand a wide range of views—both those they agree with and those they don’t. However, American political discourse has become increasingly polarized. Deliberately or not, people often place themselves in a partisan echo chamber where they consume only those views that support their pre-existing beliefs. This means not only reading and listening to partisan media, but also maintaining relationships and having political conversations only with friends, relatives, and colleagues who are likely to agree with them.

Julia Minson.

“If you think you are right, you assume that your political opponents will be embarrassed and anxious when the flaws in their arguments are exposed. What people misjudge, however, is that their opponents are likely to feel the same way.”

Julia Minson

All these choices may be based on people’s expectations of how a potential experience will make them and their counterparts feel. After all, who wants to be miserable and ruin relationships? Avoiding certain people or certain news networks seems like a small price to pay for protection from negativity.

However, research I have done with Harvard colleagues has led to important insights about people’s expectations regarding the emotional consequences of conflict. It turns out that people are bad at forecasting both their own and their counterparts’ feelings. These incorrect predictions lead to two kinds of mistakes: First, people avoid views they disagree with; second, they expect to win arguments that they probably cannot.

In a series of studies I conducted with Charlie Dorison PHD PPOL 2020, we asked people to report the emotions they feel in conflict and those they think their partners will feel. If they have accurate perceptions, the answers to both questions should be the same: A typical person should realize that the one disagreed with is also typical. We found that irritation and anger are the principal emotions people feel during arguments. Meanwhile, they expect their conversation partners to feel much more anxiety and fear than they report feeling themselves. This prediction comes from a mistaken belief that our views are valid and defensible while our opponents’ are shoddy and wrong.

If you think you are right, you assume that your political opponents will be embarrassed and anxious when the flaws in their arguments are exposed. What people misjudge, however, is that their opponents are likely to feel the same way—that they are right and their interlocutors are misguided. In our experiments, we find that when people hold such biased beliefs, they are willing to bet money on winning an argument. Of course, when both sides do this, one is bound to lose.

So does this mean that it’s useless to talk to people we disagree with? Not necessarily. Other research I have done with Dorison and Todd Rogers, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, has shown that people assume that being exposed to conflicting views will make them feel much worse than it actually does. The emotions they report after listening to an opponent are less negative than what they expected going into the experience.

Because people don’t want to feel what they anticipate to be unpleasant emotions, they tend to seek out media and conversation partners that support their beliefs. This tendency is called selective exposure, and it leads to echo chambers, worsening polarization and potentially undermining democracy. If we expose ourselves to differing views about political issues, however, we can make better-informed decisions and be part of a greater marketplace of ideas. We can break out of the echo chamber and learn something new.

My colleagues and I find that correcting the erroneous forecasts that lead to selective exposure is not very difficult. For example, in one experiment, we simply explained to participants that in previous studies, people didn’t end up disliking listening to the other side as much as they had expected. These participants were then more willing to read information from opposing politicians. They still preferred their own side, of course, but their openness to learning about opposing arguments went up by 20 to 30 percent.

This research gives me hope. If people learn that hearing opposing views won’t be as bad as they expect, we may be able to increase contact across the aisle, making our democracy healthier. Actively engaging with opposing views might make us realize that both sides have some merit, and might reduce vitriolic, unwinnable arguments. Having an accurate understanding of how people feel in conflict should help us all listen more and argue less.

Julia Minson is an associate professor of public policy. She is a social psychologist with research interests in conflict, negotiations, and judgment and decision making.

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