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Researchers Trying to Figure Out How to 'Overcome the Polarization' in Politics Find This is Key


"Start thinking about how your political opposition thinks."

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Empathy — this trait, researchers found, could help liberals and conservatives reach more of a common understanding on certain issues.

In a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers from the University of Toronto and Stanford University wrote that previous studies suggest moral rhetoric to argue one's point is ineffective at bridging the gap between liberal and conservative viewpoints.

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The researchers hypothesized that those advocating a certain political position often did so with arguments based on their own moral standpoint and "not the values of those targeted for persuasion." They also hypothesized that if these arguments were shifted to "appeal to the moral values of those holding the opposing political position," then they might be more effective.

"We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization," professor Matthew Feinberg, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers had study participants try to advocate their point-of-view with someone of a different political persuasion using their own moral values and then try to argue their point using their opponent's morality.

As you might expect, when arguing a point using their own moral values, the person of the opposite political standpoint was not likely to be swayed. What's more, the researchers observed the person arguing their point might even attack the morality of the other person, which as you might imagine would not be an effective technique to convince another person of your position.

The researchers did find that those whose own moral values were appealed to were more likely to accept the other position.

"Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process," Feinberg said in a statement.

Shifting tactics to appeal to a political opposite's values though, the researchers found, was difficult for many to do.

"Most people are not very good at appealing to other people’s values," Feinberg said.

"We found that people struggled to set aside their reasons for taking a political position and failed to consider how someone with different values might come to support that same position," Feinberg and the study co-author Dr. Robb Willer with Stanford wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times' Sunday Review.

According to a news release from the University of Toronto, only 9 percent of liberals were successful at developing an argument for same-sex marriage to appeal to conservative values, for example. Conservatives were no better, with only 8 percent being able to develop an argument for English as the official language of the U.S. that would appeal to those with a more liberal mindset.

Just dignifying the morality of someone with an opposite political viewpoint, Feinberg and Willer wrote in their op-ed, "is the least that we owe our fellow citizens."

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