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How to Bridge the Political Divide

Why are we so divided politically, and what can we do about it?

I was recently interviewed (by Rachel Drummond for Counseling Schools) about the growing political divide in the US and what the lessons are for leaders:

How do group dynamics influence how people choose their leaders?

One of the things we know about how people choose is that there are lots of biases and those biases carry over across all types of leaders. What people look for in all leaders is people who look “leader-like,” which is typically associated with masculine characteristics. A very famous article titled Think Manager, Think Male details this societal bias well.

But the image of leaders is changing. Many of us want a more relationship-oriented leader and in fact, women make better leaders than men, as evidenced by research on current theories of transformational leadership. However, leaders remain disproportionately male because of lingering institutional bias and sexism.

The other factor that emerges is the people who are perceived as “leader-like” are extroverted. Studies show that when we put people in a room, have them interact, and ask them to pick a leader, the person who talks the most gets picked as the leader.

We also look for people who have charisma: the ability to express oneself and one’s emotions. My colleagues and I did a study that examined extraversion and leadership across the lifespan. What we found was that that extraversion advantage disappeared when you put social skills into the equation. So in other words, it’s not just the ones who talk the most that make the best leaders; it’s the skilled communicators. Some of our most celebrated former presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama are known introverts and highly-skilled communicators.

What are most people looking for when choosing a leader or a political party?

One of the things that’s interesting about elections in America is that most people feel they have to choose a candidate who’s the lesser of two evils. Given limited choices, a question people ask themselves when choosing a leader is, “Does this person represent me?” This is known as in-group, out-group bias and it’s a decisive factor for most people when choosing a leader or political party.

For example, take George W. Bush in 2000. People didn’t think he was the brightest guy, but when asked about his appeal, people said, “Well, he’s like one of us, he’s like a guy you can have a beer with.”

Donald Trump supporters don’t see him as a rich guy in debt; they see him as a businessman, so they throw their support behind him. As people, we tend to conflate charisma with celebrity status, but they are two different things. While Trump has the ability to arouse emotions in followers—what is known as the emotional contagion process—he doesn’t have true charisma, which focuses more on engaging followers to obtain positive outcomes together. He has celebrity status, but not charisma that connects positively.

Is it possible to persuade someone to think differently about their political views?

It’s possible, but it’s not easy. People are generally very resistant to change. Historically, 80 percent of both Republicans and Democrats vote directly down party lines. This shows us that people don’t typically change their political party.

Can you get people to change their views on certain issues? Yes, but it’s very difficult. And it really takes time because there are risks to change.

The bottom line is: All voters need to be more informed on the candidates and issues from many perspectives. When trying to persuade someone to think differently, focusing on objective facts rather than trying to appeal to their emotions may be effective if sustained over a long period of time.

Many people are afraid to talk about politics. How can they overcome this fear?

We have two things you should never talk about at the dinner table or at family events: religion and politics. We’ve become so polarized that if you even mention your political party or your political persuasion, you risk being attacked. Again, when talking about politics, focusing on facts is essential.

For example, I saw an exchange this morning on Facebook with a friend of mine who’s liberal with a friend of his who’s conservative. The conservative friend shared a graph measuring the age and survival rate of COVID. The conservative friend said, “The survival rate is 99 percent.”

And I’m looking at it thinking, no, this is the survival rate of very young populations. The conservative friend went on to say in the comments that Donald Trump is in his forties, so he’ll likely survive his COVID diagnosis. So I said, “The president is 74 years old,” which she also didn’t know.

In fact, according to the chart she shared, no adult had a 99 percent survival rate of COVID. She was reading the first line of the chart, which was ages zero to 10 years old. Pointing out these facts seemed to resonate with her. A great non-partisan fact-checking resource is, which can be useful to determine whether or not a claim is correct when discussing or listening to political statements.

Some people think they aren’t informed enough to vote or join a political discussion. What advice would you give them?

I would turn that question around and ask, “Why do people who are completely uninformed think they know enough to not just vote but to argue for or against their candidate or cause?”

Many elections ago in 1992 when Ross Perot, another successful businessman, was running as an independent candidate, I came out of the supermarket and these two young guys asked me to support Ross Perot. When I asked them: “What do you know about Ross Perot?” They couldn’t answer any questions.

This is the polarization, in-group and out-group thinking: “He’s our guy. And nothing you’re gonna tell me is going to change that.” In-group, out-group bias is what is behind this political divide. It’s important for people to think beyond initial judgment and fact check what we are told about all political candidates and causes, including the ones we support.

Is bipartisanship possible when a nation is extremely divided?

It is known that the antidote to the in-group, out-group bias is to find some common ground to find a superordinate goal. This is a goal that both parties can buy into. An example of this is during World War II, everybody came together to fight for the survival of the free world and the survival of our nation.

People pull together when they have common ground. Major issues such as global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic are problems that everyone is facing, but we can’t convince a subgroup of the population that it’s a problem that needs addressing now.

If all else fails, cooperative games are a great way to illustrate the importance of group-decision making. I used this game with my students to illustrate the importance of cooperative decision-making. It’s a game that pulls people together to try to solve a common social problem. Ironically, the name of that game is Pandemic!

Finding common ground is more important than ever to bring people together to make important decisions about our future.

Click here for the full interview.