With a divided legislative and executive branch in the wake of the midterm elections, will government be able to get stuff done? Unfortunately, when people follow their natural social psychological tendencies, they fall in to political traps that entrench gridlock. For example, partisans blindly follow party lines: Social psychology experiments conducted by Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University have shown that Democrats prefer Democratic-backed welfare policies and Republicans prefer Republican-backed welfare policies, even when the policies are otherwise equal.
When partisans are unwilling to trust the other side, gridlock is inevitable. Or is it?
Social psychological research shows that inviting partisans to affirm their sense of self-worth can help them escape political traps. Defensive partisan reactions, such as blindly opposing the other side’s ideas, are largely driven by the desire to see one’s political group — and, by extension, oneself — as moral, correct, and good. To protect one’s own political identity, people oppose competing ideological perspectives and the people who hold them — a politically destructive defense mechanism. Yet these reactions are not inevitable. When people engage in acts that affirm who they are — as good people, not as good partisans — they become more tolerant of threats to their political identity, and more open to the other side.
Examples of denigration of political opponents abound. President Obama has been called “the most evil president ever” and McConnell has had the Asian heritage of his wife linked to unpatriotic policies of shipping jobs to China. Yet affirmation of self-worth can reduce such derogatory tendencies.
We studied this in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election among Democratic and Republican voters who viewed segments from a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Predictably, Democrats favored Obama’s policies and performance while Republicans favored McCain. But asking people to write about their core values unrelated to politics — a self-affirming activity — shrunk this partisan divide. Self-affirmed Democrats became less enamored of Barack Obama, and affirmed Republicans became more open to him. Ten days after the election affirmed Republicans even thought Obama would be a better president.
People also protect their political identities by applying more stringent criteria to the opposing side’s arguments than to their own side’s arguments. Self-affirmation can reduce this defensive information evaluation. More generally, affirmation can reduce barriers to conflict resolution, facilitate openness in negotiation, and enable partisans to acknowledge the wrongdoing of their groups, even in situations of seemingly intractable conflict, such as between Israelis and Palestinians.
People conform to the opinions of their group even in the face of countervailing evidence. Although Democrats and Republicans typically conform to different groups, in recent research led by Kevin Binning, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, both Democrats and Republicans conformed to national polling data about Obama. When Obama was described as soaring in the polls, American voters were more supportive of him and his policies than when Obama was described as swooning in the polls.
Self-affirmation reduced people’s conformity to polls. When participants were affirmed, they were less swayed by polling information and more influenced by evidence about the actual effects of Obama’s policies on the economy. Moreover, these acts of self affirmation had lasting effects on people’s reactions to polls: In one study, partisan Republicans conformed less to the polls and were more influenced by economic evidence four months after they had been affirmed.
Affirmation is not a panacea, of course. These studies were not conducted with members of Congress or on a national scale. And of course even with affirmation, partisan differences remain. But what affirmation does seem to do is to remove the biases that make reasonable compromise almost impossible. And in an era of nearly unprecedented political gridlock, every bit helps.
The political traps illustrated by these studies permeate our political discourse: denigrating opponents, rejecting the other side’s information, and conforming to political norms. Yet because these political traps all stem from a desire to protect one’s political identity, self-affirmation can reduce partisan defensiveness and help people slip the traps.