Government & Politics

In a Polarized World, an Open Mind Can Hurt Your Reputation

Americans say they value open-mindedness — until their political allies listen to what the other side is saying.

May 20, 2024

| by Alexander Gelfand

Peer pressure may be a significant driver of political polarization. | iStock/Rawpixel

Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. And sometimes, it’s simply who you are — or at least, who you appear to be.

That’s one of several takeaways from a recent paper by Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers S. Christian Wheeler and Mohamed Hussein, PhD ’24, that explores how we evaluate other people’s openness to opposing political views. Their research helps explain why political polarization has reached an all-time high in the United States and suggests potential strategies for bridging the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Wheeler, a professor of marketing, and Hussein, an incoming assistant professor at Columbia University, wanted to understand the reputational consequences of being receptive to opposing views in an era when social media has made people’s political affiliations and opinions a matter of public record. Back in the days when Americans read or watched the news in the privacy of their own homes, “outsiders didn’t see what kind of information they were consuming,” Hussein explains. Now, anyone can peruse Facebook or X to see where their friends or coworkers get their news and which accounts they follow.

Hussein and Wheeler set out to see how this visibility affects how we evaluate people who are willing to consume political information from members of the opposite political party. Previous research suggested two seemingly contradictory possibilities. On the one hand, studies show that we tend to admire people who are receptive to opposing political views. Yet research also shows that a growing number of Americans find members of the opposite party to be unintelligent, unfriendly, and immoral.

In a series of studies, Hussein and Wheeler demonstrated that people are likely to admire members of their own political party for engaging with fellow party members who hold contrary views. But that admiration turns to disapproval when fellow partisans engage with members of the opposite party, or “out-party,” who hold the same divergent views. “When the source belonged to the out-party, there were reputational costs: People were punished for listening and engaging with opposing views,” Hussein says. “But when the source belonged to their own party, or the party of the source was unknown, people who engaged and listened to the opposing views were seen in a positive light.”

To illustrate this, consider the following scenario: Joe and Kamala are both Democrats. According to Hussein and Wheeler’s findings, Joe would likely admire Kamala for hearing out a fellow Democrat — or even someone with no obvious party affiliation — who bucked the party line on an issue such as reproductive rights. But his opinion of her would likely plummet if she were willing to listen to a Republican stake out the same position on the issue.

“So much of the political animosity that you observe today is less about the ideas themselves and more about the team with which you affiliate,” Wheeler says. “It’s not so much a matter of ideology but of group identity.”

Crossing the Line

In Wheeler and Hussein’s research, this pattern held across a wide range of contexts and issues: In a series of experiments, participants expressed admiration for people who were open to in-party sources of opposing views yet looked askance at people who tolerated out-party sources expressing the same views. These reactions were driven primarily by stereotypes — in particular, the belief that members of the opposite party were immoral.

So much of the political animosity that you observe today is less about the ideas themselves and more about the team with which you affiliate.
S. Christian Wheeler

In one study, Wheeler and Hussein asked participants to imagine that they were talking to John, a fictitious individual who belonged to their party. John was either willing or unwilling to follow an X account belonging to a member of the opposite party, whom we’ll call Sam. After viewing Sam’s account, which presented authentic political views, participants were asked to share their attitudes toward John and rate the morality of Sam and his ideas.

Sure enough, 55% to 60% of participants found Sam immoral and expressed a negative opinion of John for being receptive to Sam’s views. Those who did not regard Sam as immoral, however, did not disapprove of John’s willingness to follow him.

Wheeler and Hussein saw similar results when they asked participants to imagine fellow party members consuming opposing views at rallies or lectures or from big-name sources such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Regardless of the context or the topic — abortion or gun rights, immigration or climate change — the ideas that were expressed mattered less than the partisan identity of the person expressing them.

The team’s findings suggest that peer pressure may be a significant driver of political polarization in the United States, with Democrats and Republicans refusing to engage with one another lest their fellow partisans condemn them for doing so.

But they also hint at ways of mitigating the problem. Wheeler and Hussein discovered that they could dial the cost of being receptive to members of the opposite party up or down by adjusting how much those out-party sources appeared to share the opinions and lifestyles commonly associated with Democrats or Republicans.

A typical Democrat, for instance, might live in California and listen to R&B, while an atypical one might live in Texas and enjoy country music. The more a Democrat diverged from the prototype, the less likely Republicans were to consider them immoral, and the more likely they were to admire fellow Republicans who engaged with those Democrats. (This dynamic also played out when Democrats interacted with atypical Republicans.) Something similar happened when the researchers humanized out-party sources by giving them personal details like the fact that they enjoyed an evening stroll.

These findings suggest that if we want to surmount the stereotype-driven reputational barriers that prevent us from engaging with our political opponents, we might want to begin by demonstrating that we are distinctive individuals rather than cookie-cutter liberals or conservatives. In keeping with that logic, Wheeler and Hussein are currently investigating whether people can facilitate interactions with members of the opposite party by signaling disloyalty to their own party.

“If you want people from the other party to listen to what you have to say,” Hussein says, “you might want to take the time to signal that you’re not a typical group member.”

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