The Inertia Trap

How the way we think can be an enemy of change

The Only Problem With Your Argument Is You

Intergroup biases can make it easy to agree to disagree

If you're the type of person who spends the weekend scanning cable news channels or curling up with an esoteric political science journal, you can probably name 27 reasons opposing politicians find little common ground. Though most political chatter tends to focus on salient motivations like ideological commitments, reelection incentives, or plain ol’ believing the other party is hell-bent on destroying the country, there are also psychological aspects of intergroup dynamics that can make it hard for political parties to cooperate.

To briefly summarize all of human history, groups are good. They provide protection and increase favorable opportunities. As a result, we generally seek to buttress our own groups while treating other groups with wariness. One way this manifests itself is in the “intergroup sensitivity effect” (ISE) – the tendency to be more dismissive of criticism when it comes from out-group members.

So right from the start, political systems involving multiple parties have a steep hill to climb. Compromise requires persuading another party that some piece of what they want is stupid (or at least less brilliant than the other things they want) and the ISE makes it harder for them to be open to that criticism. When a Liberal explains to a Conservative why their energy plan is bad, there’s not a great desire to take the explanation at face value.

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If that were the extent of the trouble caused by the ISE, things might not be so bad. After all, even if being in the out-group essentially handicaps your argument, you can still make up for it by building a really strong argument.

Unfortunately, the above scenario may paint too rosy of picture. New research suggests that being a member of an out-group can make the quality of your argument irrelevant.

The study, which was led by Sarah Esposo of the University of Queensland, involved asking Australians to evaluate the claim that Australians were intolerant of immigrants and racist toward indigenous people. Participants were told the claims came from either native Australians (in-group condition) or people from the U.S., England, or Canada (out-group condition.) The claims were supported by one of three types of arguments: 1) A weak argument that largely consisted of personal opinions, isolated incidents, and hearsay, 2) a strong argument that used government statistics and scholarly citations to support the claim, or 3) no argument at all. 

As expected, among participants exposed to claims made by native Australians, those who read strong arguments were more likely than those who read weak arguments to agree with the claim and cite a need for reform. However, when the claim came from a foreigner, the quality of the argument did not lead to any significant differences in how the claim was received. The finding suggests that when you’re trying to persuade somebody who belongs to another group, a strong argument may not be treated much differently than weak argument.

Although this is a depressing idea in the context of political gridlock, to say that intergroup psychology is a critical part of day-to-day political conflict would be a stretch. A liberal politician's support for universal healthcare is not going to be based on a biased evaluation of a conservative's arguments. On the other hand, at the margin these types of biases can contribute to the distance between factions. The game of political football consists of hundreds of policy proposals, jabs, and statements every week. Over time, being less attuned to the quality of the other side’s arguments will lead you to see your opponents as an unflattering caricature of themselves. Ultimately, their positions might appear more idiotic even when subject to seemingly objective analysis. 

Can anything be done to alleviate these inter-group biases? Research suggests that imagining inter-group cooperation can mitigate the effects of the ISE. In addition, anything that blurs the boundaries between groups ought to be helpful. This may be one reason why during times of war – when “we’re all Americans” – the President tends to face less opposition. But in general political systems are ill-equipped to take on these relatively minor impediments. For now the biases that arise from group interactions remain baked into the system, a part of the price we pay for the simplicity of party politics.

Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.

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