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Now It's Personal

Arguments are harder to resolve when values are on the line.

Why do we start feuds and storm away from dinner tables over political and religious debates but brush off other, less "serious" squabbles? New research suggests that even our bodies register the difference between disputes about commodities, like money and space, and those in which personal values are at play.

When someone questions your beliefs, researchers say, they implicitly question your sense of self. To get a better idea of how that affects us, a team led by psychologist Marina Kouzakova of Leiden University in the Netherlands recorded subjects' physiological responses as they debated the merits of air travel. The results, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science , show divergent patterns between participants who debated the environmental ethics of traveling by plane and those who squared off over its cost to consumers.

Subjects who argued about air travel's "greenness" (or lack thereof) showed cardiovascular signs consistent with a stressful "threat state," which can arise when the prospect of meeting a challenge or resolving a conflict seems unlikely. The arguments about money were different. Those debaters' readings suggested confidence in their ability to argue successfully—perhaps, in part, because their opponents weren't seen as being very entrenched in their positions. They also reported being less concerned about failure than those who debated values.

Common ground is hard to come by when deeply held beliefs, which may form an important part of one's identity, are on the line. Conflicts are more likely to escalate when they involve values, and we're more defensive and resistant to opposing viewpoints when in a threat state. However, shoring up a sense of identity in other ways—like thinking of positive things about yourself and your social group that are not necessarily related to the values in question—may help ease the feeling of threat.