In his inaugural address last week, President Joe Biden called for unity. But how can Americans come together, given what seems to be growing political contention and deep divides?
New research suggests the answer can be found in stories, not statistics. People respect those they disagree with more when their position comes from a place of personal experience, not facts and figures, finds a new series of experiments published Monday (Jan. 25) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This is especially true when the personal stories are rooted in experiences of harm or vulnerability.
"In moral disagreements, experiences seem truer than facts," said Kurt Gray, a psychologist and director of the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina.
Partisan gaps on issues ranging from race relations to the role of government in helping low-income people have grown in the past few decades. The Pew Research Center has found that across 10 issues tracked since 1994, the average gap in opinions between Democrats and Republicans has grown from 15 percentage points to 36 percentage points.
Many studies on political differences focus on persuasion and how people's opinions change, but opinion change is rare, Gray told Live Science.
"In today's political climate, we need to think of a more, basic foundational goal, which is just being willing to engage in respectful dialogue with a political opponent," Gray said.
For the new research, Gray and his colleagues focused on how facts versus experiences affected people's perceptions of their opponent's rationality and their respect for that opponent. Over 15 separate experiments, they found that, although people think they respect opponents who present facts, they actually have more respect for opponents who share personal stories.
The researchers tested this idea in multiple ways. First, they told 251 participants to imagine speaking to someone they disagreed with on a moral issue, such as abortion, and asked the participants to write about would make them respect their opponents' opinions. Just over 55% said opinions based on facts and statistics would increase respect, while a smaller percentage — 21% — said personal experiences would do the trick. In a second, nationally representative study, researchers asked 859 participants to imagine interacting with one opponent who based their opinions on facts and one opponent who based their opinions on experience. The participants rated the fact-based opponent as more rational and said they would respect that opponent more than the one who argued from experience.
But follow-up studies revealed that most of the participants had it backward. In actual face-to-face interactions, online debates and debates between talking heads on television, experience-based arguments actually garnered more respect between opponents than arguments based on facts.
In one study, the researchers had someone pose as a passerby who was engaging people in political discussions about gun rights and gun control. In the resulting 153 face-to-face conversations about guns, independent coders rated the responses to the topic as more respectful when the faux activist based their opinions on experience over facts. The same was true in the YouTube comments. In 300,978 YouTube comments on 194 videos about abortion, the conversation was more respectful when the videos focused on personal experiences instead of facts and statistics; commenters used a more positive tone, more positive emotional words, and more words associated with affiliation and togetherness.
Similarly, people were more respectful of New York Times op-eds based on personal experiences rather than stats, and opponents on CNN and Fox News interviews between 2002 and 2017 were more respectful, and treated their opponents as more rational, when the conversations were based on experience.
The power of experience
Further experiments found that stories were most associated with increased respect when the experiences were relevant, harm-based and personal. People respected opponents most when they'd been through something themselves, followed by when they shared the experience of a friend or family member, and they were least impressed when someone based an argument on a stranger's anecdote or story they'd read about.
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Then, the researchers explored the idea that perhaps some people's experiences seemed more trustworthy than others. First, they asked 508 participants to read fact- or experience-based arguments from people who agreed and disagreed with them on guns. The results showed that people doubted political facts presented by their opponents far more than facts presented by someone they agreed with. There was not nearly as large of a gap in doubt, however, between experiences presented by opponents and experiences presented by someone on the participant's side.
Ultimately, people can always come up with a way to doubt or discount facts, Gray said, but personal experiences are harder to argue away.
"It's just so hard to doubt when someone tells you, 'Look, this terrible thing happened to me,'" he said.
The researchers also tested whether people would discount certain life experiences more than others. Given that the experiences of people of color and women are often downplayed, they investigated whether participants would be dismissive of the experiences of a Black woman who disagreed with them on gun control. Again, personal experiences beat out facts for increasing respect for the opponent. In another study, researchers compared how people responded to views on immigration from a scientist. In that study, personal experiences again garnered the most respect, followed by scientific research. Facts cited by a layperson were deemed least worthy of respect.
Personal experiences have fueled recent movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, Gray said. Even if personal experience does not ultimately lead to persuasion, respectful discussion is an important underpinning of democracy, he said.
"I don’t want this to sound like you shouldn't be able to condemn people's views," Gray said. "[But] you can still have respect for someone as a human being and appreciate the roots of their views, and you at least need to know what those views are."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.