Trump. Sanders. Clinton. Cruz. The fervor and fright around these presidential hopefuls is rapidly intensifying as the nation approaches Republican and Democratic conventions this Summer. Divisive topics are often discouraged in polite dialogue due to the relational conflict they may promote, as noted by the old adage, “Never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table.” However, new research sheds light on the importance of engaging in adaptive relationships with individuals who may diversify perspectives within families or communities.
“Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort,” writes Katherine Philips, dean at Columbia University in Scientific American (How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, 2013). In 2013, Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, and Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University divided nearly 200 students who identified as Democrats and Republicans into groups that were equally spit between individuals from their own political party and the alternative party. Students were then asked to solve a fictional murder mystery and write a convincing essay communicating their perspective to another group member. Students were told that their partner currently disagreed with their opinion on the murderer, but were tasked to convince their partner to ultimately agree with their perspective. Half of the students in the study were told that their partner shared their political beliefs, and the other half were told that their partner had opposing political beliefs.
The outcome of this landmark study was that Republicans who were informed that a fellow Republican disagreed with them prepared more poorly for the discussion than Republicans who were told that a Democrat disagreed with them. The same pattern was present for Democrats. “When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not,” writes Philips.
The finding that political diversity improves a group’s performance is reminiscent of similar studies regarding racial diversity within groups. In 2006, Margaret Neale from Stanford University and Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explored the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in which sharing information was a necessity for success. Half of the study’s groups were racially homogenous, and half were racially diverse. Just like the 2013 politically diverse study by Loyd, Wang, and Lount, Neale and Northcraft discovered that the groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity.
These studies suggest that when individuals believe that they are surrounded by other individuals who have similar beliefs or backgrounds, they inadvertently perceive that the group all holds the same information and perspectives. Ultimately, this assumption hinders group creativity, innovation, and problem-solving abilities.
Does this body of research indicate that political arguments should be promoted at family dinner tables across America? Not necessarily. Many individuals may agree that political disagreements in a group can cause discomfort, a lack of trust, interpersonal conflict, less cohesion, and more concern about disrespect, among other challenges. In addition to relational strain, a series of new research suggests that political disagreements may also simply be ineffective at changing minds. A 2010 study by Brendan Nyhan from the University of Michigan hold a warning for those who may now be eager to debate the latest political scandal, policy, or inflammatory speech. According to Nyhan, a phenomenon called “backfire” causes individuals to adhere to their original beliefs more ardently when presented with contradictory facts ("When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions", 2013).
These studies suggests that humans are hard-wired to avoid the mental stress of cognitive dissonance, and thus adopt a defense mechanism that confirms previously held beliefs – even when they are disproved. “It's threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong. And all of us, liberals and conservatives have some beliefs that aren't true, and when we find that out, it's threatening to our beliefs and ourselves,” reflected Nyhan on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.
How does one proceed if researchers assert that political diversity is essential to the helping groups optimally solve problems, but also indicates that political arguments are likely to leave individuals more deeply ingrained in previously-held belief systems? The research noted in this article convincingly asserts that individuals may be hindered in their intellect when they associate only with those who they perceive as holding similar beliefs. And yet, the benefits of political diversity were not observed in direct discussions about politics, but rather in non-political discussion. In fact, the backfire phenomenon suggests that intellect may be damaged by political debates with opposing individuals. Perhaps one actionable conclusion to consider is building and maintaining close relationships with politically diverse groups of people, while not necessarily fixating on convincing one another to adopt certain political beliefs.
Do we need to start talking about politics at the dinner table? It seems that sharing multi-faceted personal narratives may be more effective than debating political facts.
In Politics, Sometimes The Facts Don't Matter. (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128490874
Lloyd, D., Wang, C. S., Phillips, K. W., & Lount, R. B. (2012). Social Category Diversity Promotes Pre-Meeting Elaboration: The Role of Relationship Focus. Organizational Science.
Phillips, K. W. (2014, October 1). How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. Scientific American.
When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. Retrieved April 1, 2016, fromhttp://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf