[Im]Polite Conversation: Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interactions

This post is one of a series of by MPSA members about their Federally-funded research.  Here, Jaime Settle and Taylor Carlson summarize their NSF-funded research “Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interaction.” 

A family friend relayed to me a recent incident at her children’s elementary school. According to her daughter, in the days preceding the state’s primary election, the entire fifth grade was abuzz talking about which candidates they (or, perhaps more accurately, their parents) preferred. The exchanges between the students supporting different candidates became so mean-spirited that the school administration sent a letter to all fifth grade parents asking their children to refrain from provoking or engaging in contentious political conversations on the playground or in the lunchroom.

On first pass, this anecdote may induce a chuckle, but on deeper evaluation, it reflects a disturbing trend in American political culture. Not only are our politicians more polarized, but we are, too. We think our political opponents are physically unattractive, we don’t want to live near them, and we discriminate against them when given the chance.

Much like the school administrators, many Americans consider stopping the conversation to be their preferred solution to avoid engaging in potentially uncomfortable conversations with people with whom they disagree. Since September 2014, our research seeking to understand the dynamics of these interactions has been funded by the NSF in a grant titled “Understanding the Mechanisms for Disengagement from Contentious Political Interaction.” In it, we proposed to use survey and laboratory experiments to study which facets of social interaction about politics are most stress inducing, for which kinds of people, and in which contexts. Our multi-method approach bridges the methodological gap between political science and psychology by relying heavily on a social psychological explanation for political behavior.

What have we learned so far? The topline results from a vignette experiment conducted on a nationally representative sample suggest that fewer than half of respondents expected a hypothetical character to express his or her true political opinions when given the opportunity to do so in an informal conversation among friends and acquaintances who supported a political candidate the character opposes. A sizeable proportion—approximately 10%–expected that the character would publically conform to the opinions of the majority without actually changing his or her true beliefs. This is a behavior we have observed within our experiments, as well. In a study forthcoming in Political Behavior, we find that individuals both expect a hypothetical character to conform to a group’s political opinion and actually do so themselves when given the opportunity. Furthermore, our participants thought that hypothetical characters who discussed politics only with coworkers who disagreed with them were significantly more likely to look for a new job than hypothetical characters who discussed politics with coworkers with a variety of political views.

MPSAblog_Contention and Political Disengagment
Figure 1 from “Political Chameleons: An Exploration of Conformity in Political Discussions,” forthcoming in Political Behavior

We have conducted a series of survey experiments to further explore the conditions under which people are most susceptible to pressures to silence themselves or conform to the opinions of others, and our results suggest that people are sensitive to the knowledge level of the people in the conversation, in addition to the composition of the preferences in the group. It appears that a variety of factors motivate these behaviors, including both concern about being judged negatively by others but also concern about damaging social relationships and making others uncomfortable.

One of the goals of our grant was to deeply understand the mechanisms of engagement and disengagement in political discussion, which we theorized were likely to be self-reinforcing. We are in the middle of analyzing the results from a series of psychophysiological studies in which we measured participants’ heart rates and electrodermal activity when they expected to have, or actually engaged in, political discussions. Our results suggest that some people actually have a stronger physiological response—their heart rate increases and their hands sweat more—at the mere thought of having a political conversation. For these people, political interactions are physically–not just psychologically–uncomfortable, perhaps contributing to their decision to try to avoid them at all costs.

Beyond the gains in our substantive understanding, the most important outcome of the NSF funding has been the training provided to more than two dozen students. NSF funding provided the opportunity to bring together a group of graduate student lab directors from political psychophysiology labs across the country for training workshops in 2015 and 2016. Because the Government Department at the College of William & Mary does not have a graduate program, undergraduates have been involved at every step of the project. In addition to the opportunity to attend the psychophysiological workshops, students in my research lab have been integral to the design and execution of the psychophysiological studies. And running lab experiments would be impossible without the time and energy of the proctors involved in administering the Omnibus Project.

Democratic theory hinges on the idea that all citizens have equal opportunity to voice their opinions. We should not overlook subtle and complex barriers to engagement based on people’s orientation toward conflict and disagreement, as people who prefer consensus and compromise may be discouraged from engaging meaningfully with politics in a polarized environment.

About the Authors: Jaime Settle is an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary. Her research explores how innate differences between people (genetic, physiological, and psychological) moderate the effects of contextual and interpersonal political interactions.

Taylor Carlson is a graduate student at UC San Diego. Her research explores how political information diffusion (and distortion) through social networks influences political learning and vote choice.