Political polarization has been a feature of American culture for at least a decade, but differences in how people think have influenced Charles Chu’s worldview for much of his life. Born in Tianjin, China, Chu emigrated with his parents to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he was a small boy. From the moment he arrived, he was taught that working hard was the best way to feel a sense of security in the United States. Now, as a PhD student at Stanford GSB, his research aims to understand how people’s beliefs about their sense of self affect how they see the world, particularly in the context of intense partisanship.
Under the guidance of professor of organizational behavior Brian Lowery, Chu surveyed 2,000 people online to see how they perceive individuals from the other side of the political spectrum. “It’s clear from my work that we experience disagreement, especially in the domain of politics, in a deeply personal way,” Chu says.
His research has been informed by his own experience as an Asian immigrant and as a gay person. “Growing up in a predominantly white community, and my experience as a gay man, have always made me aware of how people experience things that are different from what they expect or from what they know,” Chu says. “How do people navigate and process things that are unexpected or surprising to them, or things that don’t conform to what they already know about the world?”
What questions are you trying to answer with your research?
We live in a society that places a high premium on the individual self. We have this belief that people act the way they do and have the outcomes they have in life because of something deep and core inside of them. My research tries to question this view of the self. I try to show that having this view of the self can lead us to make some pretty unwarranted judgments about other people and even justify societal inequality.
The specific idea that I’m proposing in my dissertation is that this way of thinking about the self can lead us to have more extreme and polarized judgments of other people. I study this in the context of American politics, where I find that people who believe in a core, deeply rooted self are more polarized in their judgments of others who either agree or disagree with them on political issues.
This is an especially interesting time to study this idea given the degree of polarization in America. How has that affected what you are learning?
We assume that we’re dissimilar from people on the other side of the political spectrum. But in my dissertation work, I find that by highlighting agreement and certain beliefs that we share with people from the opposite side, we can improve our interpersonal relationships with them. We do this because we’re trying to maintain our own identities and our own grasp of reality. When we have similarities with other people from the opposite side of the political spectrum, that’s even more of a validation or an affirmation of my truth, the way that I see the world and my own place in it.
A powerful real-world example of this is [Republican Representative] Liz Cheney. She’s gotten a lot of press because of the backlash from her own party over her refusal to get in line with the idea that the election was stolen from Trump. She is being heralded as a hero by many on the left. Until recently, Liz Cheney was as close to Republican Party royalty as you can get, and she probably disagrees with liberals on virtually every issue. So to see staunch Democrats all of a sudden embrace her because they agree on the single issue that the election wasn’t stolen suggests that her position is extremely meaningful to many on the left — she’s confirming their worldview.
Ideological differences are not new, but now there seems to be a tendency to vilify people on the other side. Has your research found that to be true?
Like a lot of prior research, I do find that we want to socially distance ourselves from people who we think have fundamentally different viewpoints. And we also engage in prejudice by stereotyping and directing negative emotional reactions towards those people who we perceive as being different and who disagree with us. But I find that this is especially true for people who believe we have core, deeply rooted selves.
To me that suggests that our belief in a deeply rooted self leads us to think that there’s just something fundamentally wrong with another person who disagrees with us, when in actuality, people can disagree for a variety of reasons. Maybe they live in a different environment than us, where having a different opinion might make more sense.
Do you have advice for how we can communicate better with people whose political views are different from our own?
For me, someone else’s position on race relations, abortion, capital punishment, or gay marriage has deep relevance to me and they affect what I perceive to be my community and my group of people.
It’s easy to come at it from your own perspective and not be able to understand that someone else’s position is grounded in their deeply meaningful perspective and deeply meaningful relationships, too. We need to be understanding and acknowledging the enormous emotional weight that these topics have for people and that their opinions might be reasonable for the contexts that they live in — as much as I may disagree.
How did you conduct your research?
I’m very grounded in social psychological methods. We use experiments to identify what is the causal relationship between things. We do that by running a lot of online survey experiments where we expose people from both sides to hypothetical or described individuals from the other side. We see how people perceive and respond to those people.
For example, I’ll present participants [who identify as liberal] with someone who is an opposing partisan. So let’s say Jamie is a conservative. And you don’t know anything about Jamie except for their position on abortion or capital punishment, or whatever other issue I use. I randomly assign participants to two different conditions: one in which they see that Jamie believes abortion should be legal, and another condition where it should be illegal. Then I ask them to rate Jamie on likability and trustworthiness.
What is the origin of your interest in this kind of research?
A lot of it started for me when I worked as a project manager in my first job out of college. I did not have a very positive experience there because the organization was not very diverse and not very inclusive. There were a lot of team dynamic issues and perceptions of unfairness across the organization. That made me really interested in wanting to improve people’s experience at work.
Many people can identify with being in a workplace and wondering if you really belong there; feeling like only parts of you — only very generic, stereotypical parts of you — are recognized or appreciated.
Has your research on how people maintain their identities changed the way you think about your own experience?
My research has had a huge effect on how I think about my experiences growing up, and my family story. My parents came to the United States with very little. My mom waited tables while getting a master’s degree, and my dad hustled and did his PhD in two years. And I tried to follow in their footsteps. I studied hard, focused on school, tried to get into the best universities I could, all for the hope of security and acceptance in this country.
When I tell it that way, our family story sounds very much like the American dream. But the flip side is that although my family was very poor when we emigrated from China, my parents are also children of college-educated parents, which was rare at the time. My great-grandfather was one of the first Chinese students to go to school in the States — he went to Yale. So when you think about that part of the family story, it sounds much more like a story of privilege reasserted.
Knowing what I know now about how our environments shape our identities, I can see how much this part of the story has shaped who I am and who my family is. I don’t think it takes anything away from the hard work and sacrifices that my parents have made to acknowledge this and recognize that our blessings come from some things that we control, and some things that we don’t.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman