Search For Political Common Ground Is Difficult, Research Shows
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Thanksgiving - a day to gather with relatives around the dinner table, engage in conversations, like this one...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know how you feel.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You don't know how I feel. And my opinion, you don't even care.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, opinions are like [bleep], honey; everybody's got one and everybody thinks everybody else's stinks.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) For Christ's sake.
MONTAGNE: That's a scene from the 1995 film "Home For The Holidays." Thanksgiving arguments often sparked by politics are a classic part of the dinner table. NPR's Shankar Vedantam often joins us to talk about social science research. And he sat down with our Steve Inskeep to chat about a scientific experiment that might help keep tempers calm at your dinner table.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: OK. So what's the new research?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, the research looks at seemingly intractable conflicts, such as the conflict between Democrats and Republicans. And it shows that besides disagreements about the issues, there's an underlying psychological process that makes the search for common ground really difficult. The research comes from Liane Young at Boston College, and along with Adam Waits and Jeremy Gingers, she asked Democrats and Republicans about the emotions that motivate them and the emotions that motivate their opponents. Both sides said that they were motivated by positive emotions, such as love or loyalty to their fellow Republicans or their fellow Democrats, but that their opponents were motivated primarily by hate and animosity. Now, this was true of both Republicans and Democrats. Here is Young talking about the Democratic volunteers.
LIANE YOUNG: Democrats were much more likely to say that they're motivated by love compared to hate. We then went and asked them, how much is the Republican Party motivated by love and hate? And there we found that Democrats were likely to say that Republicans were motivated by their hate of Democrats rather than their love of Republicans.
INSKEEP: OK, so the research says that I'm thinking the worst of the other guy, or more properly I think that you're thinking the worst of me. I think you hate me, and that colors my perceptions of you.
VEDANTAM: That's precisely right, Steve. The point that Young and her colleagues are making is that if we believe that our opponents hate us, it's really hard to imagine common ground. So this might be one reason conflicts end up being intractable not just in politics, but in arguments over the Thanksgiving table. When we feel an aunt or an uncle or grandparent is out to get us, we do everything we can to defend ourselves against this hate that's coming across the table. What we don't often realize is the person sitting across the table is trying to defend themselves from what they think is our hate for them. So Young and her colleagues think that if we try to see the other side as also being driven by positive emotions, such as loyalty or love rather than animosity, the arguments don't disappear, but it takes the sting out of the arguments.
INSKEEP: You know, we have a colleague here at work who talks about assuming the best intentions of the other person. I suppose that's the insight here, is to assume the best of intentions of the partisan jerk across the table from me.
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That's exact right, Steve. People live very different lives, and they're coming together for a Thanksgiving meal. So it's not surprising they're going to bring their loyalties to their own groups to this shared dinner. Young told me she hopes to apply the lesson of her study to her own Thanksgiving if an argument happens to break out. Here she is.
YOUNG: In the case of a fiery Thanksgiving debate, it's good to give the benefit of the doubt that this person isn't arguing with me because they hate me. But I would tell myself, hey, you know, they want me to understand their point of view because they think it's right, and this grandparent is motivated by their love of me.
INSKEEP: But wait a minute here. Suppose I try so hard to be big about this and to be open-minded and the other person is just a jerk - or I'm afraid the other person is going to be a jerk. What would it take to get the other person to open their minds?
VEDANTAM: Well, that's a good question, Steve. Young's study actually might point to the solution because she and her colleagues wanted to see if they could do anything to get people to accurately perceive their opponents point of view. Now, since this is America, they decided to try the old-fashion approach. They promised volunteers a financial incentive.
INSKEEP: Just pay them, pay them, go on.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. They found that when you tell Democrats and Republicans that they stand to earn about $10 if they can accurately describe what's happening in their political opponents' minds, both sides now say the views of their opponents are probably shaped by positive emotions, such as loyalty and love rather than hate.
I asked Young whether the same technique might work at Thanksgiving dinner tables. Now, I have to say she was very skeptical that this could work, but I say that we should run an experiment, slip a $10 bill under people's plates, and as they sit down, see if that gives us a happy Thanksgiving.
INSKEEP: Shankar, there's a little something for you underneath your paper there.
VEDANTAM: You know, Steve, I always thought so highly of you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Shankar Vedantam speaking with Steve Inskeep. You can follow Shankar on Twitter @hiddenbrain and you can follow this program @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.