The election result could be changed by people shifting their opinions on specific issues, which is why it is worth engaging others on issues you care about. But what if you’re starting from very different positions?
Sinead Peacock-Brennan and Laura McGrath
It feels like this election is taking place in polarised - and impenetrable - bubbles. The Brexit referendum has reorganised British politics, not least through providing powerful new social identity categories of ‘Remainer’ and ‘Leaver’, then forcing people to both pick and defend a side. Despite the EU being conspicuously absent from public priorities in 2015, one fallout from the Brexit vote has been a fracturing of existing political tribes. Speculation abounds over how ‘Labour Leavers’ and ‘Tory Remainers’ could upturn long held safe seats and reshape our political landscape.
Rather than fluidity in politics opening new spaces for dialogue and understanding, our changing political times have instead entrenched division. Moral and emotive language, of treachery and surrender, in a social media landscape, which reinforces our existing views rather than challenging them, has only acted to heighten hostility. Throw into this mix the impact of a decade of funding cuts, the climate emergency, floods, accusations of racism in both Corbyn's Labour and Johnson's Conservatives, and no wonder it can seem harder than ever to listen to, never mind understand, people with different views.
At Psychologists for Social Change, we use psychological research to inform political debate, policy and social action. We have highlighted the damaging impact of austerity on mental health and examined alternatives such as universal basic income or services. We have also critically analysed the ‘happiness’ or ‘wellbeing’ agenda in British politics, as well as considered what better education and children’s mental health services might look like.
These briefing papers and commentary might inform your conversations with friends, family and colleagues in the run up to the election. In these divided times, however, we realise it is not enough to work out what the issues are and where you stand. What happens if you realise mid conversation that you are in a different bubble to the person you are talking to? You might shut down and decide that it is a lost cause, or engage in a heated discussion which leaves you both irate and frustrated, holding even more firmly onto your existing beliefs. Or is there another approach? One that encourages discussion, and could possibly build consensus for political change? Here are some ideas.
If you do find yourself in a conversation with someone you disagree with this election, how can psychological research help you to listen, be heard and reach beyond the bubble? You can try to:
1.Understand the foundation of their position
It can seem bewildering that another person does not share our strongly held convictions, and it can be tempting to label people who seem not to care about our concerns as unfeeling or bad. Research into people’s moral foundations, however, suggests that not everyone makes moral decisions - on what is right, important or worthy of care - based on the same principles.
Researchers have identified five major foundations used for moral decision making: harm/care, justice, loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity. They found that in the US, university educated, secular liberals tend to draw on the first two - an abstract idea of justice or fairness combined with a consideration of harm. These have been characterised as ‘individualising’ foundations, based in preserving individual liberty. Social conservatives instead tend to consider loyalty to their group, respect for authority and whether something challenges purity by violating boundaries or norms. Researchers refer to these as ‘binding’ foundations, which act to preserve community and tradition.
The Remain/Leave divide in this country can be understood along these lines. Remain - prizing openness, freedom of movement and globalisation - draws on the secular liberal foundations of justice and care. Many of those who voted Leave drew on values of group loyalty and ideas of keeping Britain ‘pure’ through closing borders and reclaiming sovereignty. While the categories of Leave and Remain are relatively new, they draw on well established, deeply felt moral world views. Both sides, drawing on different foundations, seem immoral and incomprehensible to the other.
All the moral foundations involve a strong emotional aspect. Care is underpinned by empathy, loyalty can invoke both shame and pride, and purity violations evoke disgust. These are powerful emotions, linked to our basic moral orientation to the world. No wonder it can be difficult to understand a different moral reaction to our own! We also know that people are motivated to see both themselves and the world as good, meaning that challenges to our moral frameworks are experienced as particularly threatening - which is why it is so easy to get defensive.
Appreciating that someone’s moral decision making may come from a different foundation can help build understanding for political differences. Framing issues across multiple foundations can also be helpful in widening the appeal of policies, and building a coalition for change. For instance, framing environmental issues in terms of both care (for the planet) and sanctity (protecting the purity of the planet) has been found to increase conservative support for environmentalism. The welfare state could, similarly, be multiply framed in terms of care (for people in difficult circumstances), justice (a fair society), loyalty (looking after our own), respect for authority (expert-led government spending) and sanctity (moral disgust at leaving people to suffer).
2.From debate to dialogue
There can be a tendency to state our case strongly when talking about something we really care about. Political discourse is shaped by the idea of ‘debate’, where you persuade through evidence, argument and ‘beating’ the other person. While it can feel righteous to back someone into a logical corner with a strong argument, research suggests this is counter-productive. To build possibilities for change, we need not to ‘beat’ the other side but develop consensus and agreement.
Reactance theory can help explain why people ‘double down’ in an argument, strengthening their position rather than being swayed by your carefully honed evidence. The central idea is that people are motivated to maintain a feeling of freedom and choice. Arguments which take away this choice - “you must” or “this is the only way to think/behave” - are likely to cause people to fight to maintain their sense of freedom by continuing to disagree. This effect is strengthened when people are categorised into a group - such as “all Polish people think this” - which further reduces their options. A comment like “you work in the NHS, there can only be one party you are supporting” is likely to lead the listener to hold on to their freedom and reject this proposed 'only option’. A further list of evidence would only strengthen this effect.
Conversations that draw on similarities across political parties and highlight the additional options this gives voters might invite people to move into a less stubborn position. You could note the Remain commitment of both the Lib Dem and Green parties, or the green pledges offered by both Labour and Green parties. Countering the perception that our politics are irreversibly polarised might open up possibilities for people to act, and vote, in a different way.
People also use different explanations of an issue in different contexts and can easily draw on apparently contradictory explanations of phenomena at the same time. For example, the same person may make sense of poverty using both individual, victim-blaming and contextual, socio-economic explanations. This is important because different explanations lead to different solutions.
The aim, then, is not to change someone’s mind – from blue to red or out to in – but to come to a shared, multifaceted understanding of a specific issue. This shared understanding might contain multiple stories of how the problem has been created or maintained, from which there are multiple possible solutions.
3.Building consensus for change
If a multifaceted understanding of an issue is possible, the next step might be increasing the resonance of a particular part of the story; how much it ‘rings true’. Framing information so that it is seen as credible and relevant to the audience will help in improving the resonance of what you are trying to say. Try to match the credibility of any evidence presented to you by drawing on similar sources. Also think about the different sources of credibility, such as personal experience, academic expertise or religious authority, and how relevant they are to the person.
It may also help to think about framing an issue in terms of preservation rather than change. People are more motivated by avoiding loss than they are by the potential for gain. Political campaigns play on this, promising to ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Take Back Control’, or ‘Save our NHS’. There is also some evidence that a need to overcome fear, threat and uncertainty can lead some people to hold more strongly onto existing ideology. Painting a picture of a bright new future of radical change, therefore, can sometimes switch off potential allies rather than inspire them.
It can be helpful to consider how relevant your ideas are to the life of the person, and how closely stories being told match their wider beliefs about themselves and the world. Or are they so foreign that they could be disregarded or ignored? Starting from your area of interest or passion may make it easier for you to speak, but it may make it harder for the other person to listen. Instead, start with listening. Listen to what interests them and think about how your opinion on the situation may be different, but similar enough to be listened to, and understood.
Barack Obama suggested that political change cannot occur unless people who have previously disagreed come to stand alongside one another. Public narratives can be changed in individual conversations, between friends, family and colleagues. So this election, don’t hide behind professional ‘neutrality’ or turn away from those who hold an opposite position to you. Listen to where they are coming from, think about the values underpinning their arguments and aim to introduce a different story which might pull you both closer together in your mutual understanding of the issues and possible solutions.
Sinead Peacock-Brennan and Laura McGrath are members of PSC. This blog is based on the research summaries in the 2016 PSC briefing paper Improving public discussion about inequality.
PSC is a network of people interested in applying psychology to generate social and political action. You don't have to be a member of PSC to contribute to the blog