After every new tweet from the President of the United States, Donald Trump's opponents converge against him and his supporters rally. These reactions are consistent with data showing greater polarization among the American electorate. At the same time, there is occasional synergy in reactions, such as in recent concerns about potential ethics violations in the White House.
Many scientists and scholars have asked what makes the difference between increasing tensions and finding common ground? If we can discover the barriers to finding common ground, we can make more political and social progress.
This issue is at the heart of a new interdisciplinary and inter-institutional project looking at ways to increase humility in dialogue over controversial issues. This project seeks to integrate findings from attitudes research with insights from philosophy to understand how we can cultivate humility within debate.
Fortunately, this project can build on a growing amount of new attitudinal research on this topic. One recent set of studies is particularly interesting. A team of social psychologists at different universities have drawn attention to the idea that we identify more with groups that help us to resolve uncertainty about our attitudes (Clarkson, Smith, Tormala, & Dugan, 2017). Imagine that you are in a discussion of a political topic, such as the case for more environmental recycling, and you start to feel that your reasons for your attitude are not as clear and strong as you would have liked. Perhaps others are not agreeing as robustly as you would like, they may be spotting gaps in your argument, or you simply can not come up with as much as you would like to say. You might start to feel uncertain about your attitude.
A lot of past research on attitudes has suggested that such uncertainty can be unpleasant, and there may be many ways to deal with it. Building on past research examining the psychological reasons for identifying with groups, Joshua Clarkson and his collaborators (2017) suggested that identifying with groups is one psychological tool for dealing with attitude uncertainty. The idea is that we can compensate for uncertainty about our attitude to a topic by re-affirming our connection to groups that share our view. By re-affirming our connection to these groups, we can feel more confident about the social support for our attitude – we feel socially validated.
In one of the studies testing this idea, the scientists asked college students to report their attitudes to recycling (which were very favorable) and to list four reasons for their attitudes. These reasons were entered by the students into a computer. The computer then fed back a rating of the strength of the reasons, ostensibly in comparison to a global database of reasons. The rating was actually manipulated by the experimenters: each student “learned” that the reasons were very strong or very weak. Shortly thereafter, the students were asked to rate their certainty about their attitudes to recycling and the extent to which they identified with people who are concerned about the environment.
As expected, participants reported higher attitude uncertainty following the “weak reasons” feedback than following the “strong reasons” feedback. The participants who reported more attitude uncertainty also reported more identification with environmentally-concerned individuals. Furthermore, after expressing their higher identification with environmentalists, participants gave lower ratings of attitude uncertainty. In other words, the evidence suggests the uncertainty led to identification with the relevant group, which in turn reduced the uncertainty. It seems then that we can compensate for our own attitudinal uncertainty by identifying with groups who see things the same way as we do.
An interesting question is how much does this effect extend across diverse attitudes? Clarkson and colleagues showed how uncertainty in attitudes toward an environmentally relevant behavior can lead to more identification with environmentalists, but it should be the case that this process also applies in other social and political issues. For instance, President Trump supporters may reduce attitude uncertainty following some of his provocative tweets through greater identification with his team. It is unlikely that basic psychological processes have political favorites, and it will be interesting to see how future research follows up this topic.
Clarkson, J., Smith, E., Tormala, Z., & Dugan, R. (2017). Group identification as a means of attitude restoration, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 68, 139–145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2016.07.001