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The Risks of "Staying Out of It"

Adopting a neutral position to placate both sides may backfire.

Max Tarkhov/iStock
Max Tarkhov/iStock

Modern political discourse is nothing short of contentious, especially in the U.S., and people of any partisan persuasion risk being socially penalized for expressing the “wrong” view at the wrong time. Some try to sidestep this danger by staying neutral when hot-button topics are raised. Recent research, however, warns that their strategy may come with its own risks.

In 11 studies, individuals who declined to take sides when asked their opinion on morally-charged political issues like gun control or abortion were seen by participants as deceptive and untrustworthy. This appeared to be because participants assumed the neutral person was secretly in opposition to the beliefs of whomever they were speaking to, whatever those were, yet trying to hide this fact behind a veneer of impartiality.

Liberals and conservatives both already consider their opponents untrustworthy—but those who adopt a seemingly deceptive neutral stance may incur an even worse penalty. Individuals who opposed participants’ views outright were deemed more trustworthy, and more worthy of cooperating with, than those who remained neutral. “It’s bad to be on the other side,” explains study author Ike Silver, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “But it’s even worse to be on the other side and try to be sneaky about it.”

How can the truly neutral avoid being punished for an in-the-middle or undecided stance? In the study, neutral parties who were able to justify their beliefs—explaining that they saw merit on both sides, for instance, or didn’t know enough to form an opinion—suffered less severe consequences than those who seemed to be staying out of it just to save face. “If you’re truly in the middle, it’s good to communicate why,” Silver suggests. “The more you’re willing to say, the less you’ll be penalized for it.”