Arguing Politics With Friends? One Word Makes a Difference

New study offers insight into political conflict with friends, family & others.

Posted Dec 09, 2017

A politically involved woman I know surprised me recently when she said that she had banned politics from her conversations with friends and family.

“It’s just too stressful,” she said. “If we’re on the same page, we get each other worked up and upset over everything that’s going on, and since we end up feeling helpless and hopeless, what’s the point? And if we don’t agree, we get each other worked up and upset and worried that we shouldn’t be friends anymore. So I just don’t talk about these things.”

I asked her how that was working for her, and she said, “I’m worried and upset all the time — just on my own instead of with my friends.”

A new study says that she is not alone.

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It turns out that talking about politics with friends, even if you’re on different sides of the political spectrum, can actually have a beneficial impact. As one liberal colleague with a close friend who voted for Trump told me, “We really like each other, and we share a lot of the same values. So when we talk, we are respectful — and we often learn something that makes sense, even if we disagree on the outcome.”

Research has shown that friendship is an extremely important part of our lives. You probably know that you get emotional support and a sense of belonging from some of your friends, but did you know that they can also keep you healthy? Studies have shown that friends help us modulate pain and stay physically healthier!

The question of whether or not you can be friends with someone with different political beliefs has strong advocates on both sides. One school of thought suggests that, like my acquaintance, you simply refrain from talking about controversial subjects. Mary Matalin and James Carville, famously married despite being outspoken members of opposing political parties, write that their shared values, including respect for one another and for others, supersede their political positions and protect their relationship. This is also what my colleague, whose friend voted for Trump while he voted for Clinton, told me. Yet one study found that being a member of opposing political parties can stir up extreme amounts of hostility and denigration between two people, which is why some say that you cannot mix friendship and politics.

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What seems to be a general rule of thumb, however, is that disagreement, even when it leads to the end of a friendship, be expressed in a civil, respectful way. Many would argue that this rule has been abandoned.

A soon-to-be-released study which will be published in the European Journal of Social Psychology offers an interesting, new perspective on this question. Yale University’s John Bargh, along with his colleagues, Jaime Napier, Julie Huang, and Andy Vonasch, found that a desire to feel safe is the motor that drives many political beliefs. And that making someone feel safe can actually change his or her political opinions.

Volunteers who participated in the study were divided into two groups and told to imagine a situation in which they had one of two superpowers. One group was told to imagine that they could fly on their own (without machinery). The other was to imagine that they could be completely physically safe. The group who pictured themselves flying felt more vulnerable, and when they then responded to questions about their political beliefs (determined by questions asked before and after the exercise), those who had expressed more conservative beliefs stayed attached to their conservative point of view, and those with more liberal attitudes moved closer to a conservative perspective. On the other hand, those who felt safer — that is, those in the group that imagined being completely physically safe — became more closely aligned with a more liberal position.

These findings matched earlier studies by Professor Bargh and his colleagues. In one nationwide study, participants were first reminded about the threat of the flu virus and then asked questions that measured their attitudes toward immigration. Then participants were asked whether or not they had gotten a flu shot. Those who had not gotten a flu shot were more negative about immigration. Conversely, those who had already gotten vaccinated expressed more positive attitudes about immigration.

The researchers posit that a sense of safety leads to a more liberal or tolerant feeling about immigration, while a sense of potential threat leads to a more conservative or negative feeling about immigration. Even more powerful, in yet another study, simply having participants use a hand sanitizer during one flu epidemic made them more tolerant of immigrants.

One of the interesting aspects of these studies is that there was no actual reassurance taking place, but instead a simple action, either imagined or real, that led to a sense of security and a shift in political thinking.

The implications seem fairly straightforward: acknowledging the role of safety in everyone’s political position might help you have a more reasonable political discussion with those who disagree with you.

But even with friends and family who are on the same page as you, political conversations can raise anxieties. What can you do in that case?

Taking action to improve a difficult situation can help. A colleague told me that as a lifelong political activist, she found that engaging in activities that could both change a situation and improve the lives of others helped her feel less vulnerable. She said that she had made many friends over the years while doing these activities, which also comforted her. But she added that she had one particular friend with whom she felt most comfortable discussing politics. “She and I often go together to volunteer or to participate in a rally,” she said. “But what really makes me feel good is that she makes me feel safe. I think it’s because we are looking at the world and trying to do something together.”

Attachment and relational theories, as well as much recent work on trauma, make clear that feeling like we are connected to others who understand what we feel, and feel it as well, is crucial to emotional health. This is part of the secure base or foundation of attachment that makes it possible to move out into the world and function in life.

This same colleague told me about the psychiatrist Leston Havens, known for his empathic work with psychotic patients, whom he refused to categorize or pathologize. One of his techniques was to move his chair so that he sat beside, rather than facing, a patient. There were two reasons for this: first, during a psychotic episode, a person is often uncomfortable being looked at or looking at another person; and second, sitting beside the patient conveyed a feeling that they were not on opposite sides of the room, looking in different directions, but were both looking at the world from the same position. And they were going to work on these problems together.

It can help to recognize from the outset that we might not agree on everything. We can make room for disagreement, which, says Laura Groshong, LICSW, clinician and legislative advocate for several mental health groups, is simply part of politics.

But when you figuratively turn your chair so that you are side by side, facing the world together, both you and your friend can talk about what you think, agree and disagree, and feel safe doing it. Being together is a lot more secure than being against each other. And who knows? From a safe position, one or both of you might actually change your opinions — at least on some subjects. 


John Bargh: Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.  Touchstone Publishers 2017

Leston Havens A Safe Place: Laying the Groundwork of Psychotherapy.  Harvard University Press 1996