Do your social media feeds seem more antagonistic these days?
Stanford GSB professor Zakary Tormala noticed a trend toward greater polarization in his social world some time ago, and recognized this as part of a broader, nationwide phenomenon. The observation motivated him to study ways of reducing polarization.
“Polarization seems to be at an all-time high; certainly as high as I can remember,” Tormala says. “People are concerned about it, but it’s tough to crack given our social media silos and heavy exposure to like-minded others.”
Tormala dove into these issues to find a way to reduce polarization, as explained in a paper he published recently with collaborators Rhia Catapano (who led the research as part of her dissertation studies at Stanford GSB) and Derek Rucker of Northwestern University.
They started with ideas from classic research on self-persuasion: specifically, that getting people to generate arguments that go against their own thinking might open them to others’ perspectives.
“Let’s say you’re against strengthening gun control in the United States, hypothetically,” Tormala says. “If I wanted to soften your views or make you more receptive to tougher gun laws, a self-persuasion strategy would be to ask you to think of reasons that stricter gun control might be a reasonable idea. Research shows that this kind of counter-attitudinal argument generation can be an effective way to open people up to opposing positions. We were interested in figuring out what would make this kind of self-persuasion approach more or less effective.”
To do so, the researchers built on the self-persuasion concept with insights taken from research on perspective-taking, or the idea that putting oneself in someone else’s shoes can open one up to other viewpoints. “A great deal of research suggests that perspective-taking is a useful way to bridge gaps, reduce stereotypes, and bring people closer together,” Tormala says. “We wondered what would happen if we asked people to engage in perspective-taking right before a self-persuasion exercise.”
Their studies showed that while self-persuasion remains a powerful approach to attitude change, putting ourselves in others’ shoes can backfire in this context — in particular, when the opposition’s values diverge from our own.
Countering Our Own Arguments
The initial study asked nearly 500 Reddit users to generate counter-attitudinal arguments — or those that go against their own beliefs or opinions — on the topic of universal health care.
The researchers asked some participants to first take the perspective of the opposition before formulating counter-arguments. “So, if you were a liberal in favor of universal health care, you would have to take the perspective of a conservative against universal health care,” Tormala says.
The researchers measured people’s attitudes toward the topic before and after the experiment. Intuitively, combining the two social psychology tools would seem to yield stronger results than deploying them separately, such that people would become even more open to opposing views when they engage in perspective-taking and self-persuasion simultaneously.
That’s not what happened.
When Perspective-Taking Backfires
Participants who engaged only in self-persuasion experienced some attitude change. In other words, on its own, self-persuasion worked. But adding the perspective-taking exercise beforehand undermined the effect.
“It didn’t polarize people further,” Tormala says, “but it did undo the benefit of the self-persuasion task — the counter-argument generation activity. Combining the two approaches [self-persuasion and perspective-taking] made them less effective.”
It comes down to value incongruence, the researchers say. When we formulate counter-arguments, we use our own values to guide ourselves, coming up with ideas we can stomach. But when we take the perspective of someone with opposing viewpoints, we’re more likely to see the issue through the filter of their perceived values and morals.
“If I’m a liberal who supports universal health care and put myself in a conservative’s shoes, I may come up with stereotypically conservative arguments against it,” Tormala says. “They’re inconsistent with my own values and thus less effective in persuading me. If I’m that same person but I don’t put myself in a conservative’s shoes, I come up with more liberal arguments. Those arguments speak my language. They’re more congruent with my own values and morals, and that makes them more compelling to me.”
The findings raise a natural question: What if you put yourself in the shoes of someone with values similar to your own but an opposing view on a specific issue?
The researchers studied that situation too, in a subsequent experiment focused on the issue of universal basic income. “Here,” Tormala says, “we found that a liberal taking the perspective of another liberal who happened to disagree about this issue became much more receptive to the opposing view. It opened people up a lot. And, of course, this works for conservatives too. When a conservative took the perspective of a disagreeing conservative, they also opened up.”
In fact, taking the perspective of a like-minded opponent (someone who shares your values overall but disagrees on the issue in question) was more effective at shifting attitudes than merely generating counter-arguments.
Find the Right Shoes to Try On
Perspective-taking, then, isn’t inherently flawed as a means of reducing polarization. It’s more about whose perspective we take.
“When you take the perspective of someone who disagrees with you and also has different values in general, that’s where the trouble comes,” Tormala says. So you can’t just put your metaphorical foot into anyone’s shoe; it’s best if their values align with your own.
Overall, the studies confirmed the value of the classic counter-argument approach in changing attitudes. “When you play the role of the opposition and advocate for the opposing view, you can actually be the one who changes the most in response to that advocacy,” Tormala says.
But taking the perspective of the opposition backfires when we perceive opponents as having value systems different from our own. Instead, thinking about people who are like us in general but disagree on a specific issue should drive the most change in our attitudes toward that issue.
This holds true across domains from politics to business. “Say a company has a hiring debate about filling a vacant leadership position and different groups have different opinions about the best fit,” Tormala says. “Taking the opposing side’s perspective might soften you toward their position and increase your willingness to engage — but only if you don’t see them as fundamentally different from you.”
Tormala offers parting advice on the inherent objective of attitude-change efforts: “People often act as if the goal of persuasion is to ‘flip’ someone to the opposite attitude, from 100 to zero. Efforts to create that kind of change can actually increase people’s conviction about their existing attitudes. It’s often more effective to think of your persuasion goal as trying to move someone a little bit away from the extreme, as a way to get them to open up a bit and potentially change their behavior. An inch of movement can be impactful if it facilitates a more receptive and cooperative mindset.”