On the psychology of personal values and communicating across political divisions

Emily Fisher
Associate Professor of Psychological Science

People tend to think they are being rational and empirical about a lot of their political attitudes when they’re actually starting from an emotional standpoint. When you ask, they’ll say they researched and thought about it and developed this idea, but we find that those ideas start with values. We tend to start with values and then we go seek out the news and research that confirms that reaction.

So one of the challenges for social psychology is to get people to realize that they are thinking emotionally to begin with, so they’re aware of where their attitudes come from and that they might not be as rational as they think they might be. We’re getting good at figuring out why these divisions are happening but changing it is really hard. People aren’t always very good at recognizing their own hypocrisy because our biases tend to be unconscious and unless we’re really intent on thinking hard about our blind spots, we don’t see them.

I think that’s part of what’s happening with the issue of policing and racial justice: some people see respect for authority as the moral thing to do and supporting the police is part of that perspective. Moral foundations theory suggests that, just like we have different personality traits — “organized” or “introverted” — people differ in terms of what they see as moral issues. Some are pretty universal, like you should take care of the vulnerable, but then there’s something like respect for authority, or loyalty to your group; some people think it’s immoral to be disloyal, or to question the things authorities in law enforcement do. Finding a way to reframe the conversation around the role police play in our communities in terms of helping America, or in terms of fairness, could be a way around that, to get people to see the issue from a different perspective that still aligns with their moral foundations. Not everyone is going to respond to the same types of arguments, so you have to recognize that you’ll have to speak a different language to people who aren’t otherwise on your side. The arguments that would convince you aren’t necessarily the arguments that would convince someone else. If you’re trying to change someone else’s mind, you have to think hard about the other person’s perspective and speak to them where they are.

Since we’ve become so politically polarized, another problem is that people are a lot less likely even than a few decades ago to have friends who disagree with them politically. Polarization between urban, rural and zip codes has increased; people are moving to zip codes that are equal to, or more, liberal or conservative than where they currently live, in part because of what people want and what those places offer, like living close to neighbors versus having a big yard and open space. But if we isolate ourselves with people we agree with, we start to see our experience as the most common one. And if your most common experience with the police is neutral, or maybe at worst getting pulled over for speeding, it’s hard for you to imagine the experience of someone from a different background, harder for you to see the problem.

If you start to make friendships or meaningful personal interactions across those differences, you can see those differences. We tend to prefer hanging out with ingroups — the social psychology word for someone you have something in common with — so we need to push ourselves to be sure we’re not seeing non-ingroups as homogenous blobs. The benefit of having contact with outgroups is that it lets you see your experience isn’t as universal as you thought, and it becomes a bit easier to take the perspective of someone who has a different experience. Having those conversations is one of the most powerful ways to, if not change minds, at least change biases against particular groups.