Groups in tension: Why Republicans and Democrats still get along

Posted By News On March 8, 2017 - 12:24am

It happens after every presidential election. The opposition will be the death of America, friendships are lost, society is doomed. Except it isn't. 

In actuality, proclamations of doom by political activists and those they whip into a frenzy never come to pass, because at heart all Americans share common moral values such as fairness and harm. And that is also why some on both sides are so afraid of new ideas. At least if we can go by social psychologists doing interviews. 

The authors of a recent psychology paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin interviewed hundreds of members of sectarian groups in Lebanon, ethnic groups in Morocco and ideological factions in the United States. Their findings undermine political claims that conflicts arise because of differences in what they call "binding" values, such as beliefs about God, purity or deference to authority. Members of groups may believe in these things, but they don't necessarily expect others to share those beliefs.

In Lebanon, the authors asked 376 undergraduates from the Lebanese American University -- a mix of Christian, Sunni and Shiite students from middle-class backgrounds - how comfortable they'd be living near and socializing with members of the other sectarian groups. The answer, they found, depended on how much the individual thought the other group prioritized universal "autonomy" values such as harm and fairness. The same was true in Morocco, where they hired local researchers to survey 100 Arabs and Berbers in six districts around Greater Casablanca.

The authors then asked if a desire to change intergroup relations would motivate increased perceptions of moral difference between groups. If so, would this occur primarily on the basis of universal values of fairness and harm?

To find out, they interviewed 362 New Yorkers about abortion and same-sex marriage. They found that for participants who espoused either the liberal or the conservative view, thinking about an issue around which they desired a change in the status quo led to a perception of greater distance between self and other in autonomy values, but not binding ones.

In other words, on issues where participants wanted a status change in an issue that currently favored the other group, they perceived greater differences in autonomy values.