Alex Penk

By Alex Penk - 21/03/2017

Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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Like a bickering couple, we need to find healthy ways to disagree about politics

Elections bring out conflict and some of it can be really damaging. Because we’re living together, we’re building a shared future, but like a couple living together our future is in trouble if we can’t find healthy ways to explore genuine conflict. As New Zealand heads towards the clash of ideas in 2017, we have to understand the attitudes that could drive us apart, and ask how to handle it well.

This article first appeared in the January 14, 2017 edition of The Weekend Press and on stuff.co.nz.

I was living in England when the Brexit referendum happened, and every second house on our street in Oxford had a ‘Remain’ sign in the front window. One by one, they all came down after the vote to leave the EU, apart from the one that stayed up with “sad” written on it. Two months after the vote, I was still getting emails about protest marches from the University college I was attached to. The referendum exposed a deep divide, but unlike a personal relationship, the English can’t just split up. They all still have to live together after their referendum, learning from their divisions and hopefully mitigating them in future.

In England, I saw “motive attribution asymmetry” on display. Imagine a fighting couple where each partner thinks the other one is the real problem. That’s a bit like motive attribution asymmetry in politics, where you’re convinced your side is motivated by good things, like love, competence, and positive strategy, while the other side is motivated by bad things, like hate, incompetence, and negative strategy. This asymmetry fuels protest instead of dialogue, division instead of common ground.

In a 2014 study, researchers examined this kind of attribution bias in groups of US Democrats and Republicans, and in groups of Israelis and Palestinians. Each group they studied was more likely to think that their own party or country was motivated by love, and that the other party or country was motivated by hate. This kind of bias could make conflicts more bitter and longer-lasting, the researchers suggested.

The researchers knew it was possible these were “expressive” answers, meaning respondents were exaggerating a bit or cheerleading for one side. So they ran another study that encouraged the participants to stop and think through their answer more carefully and less impulsively. When the participants made the effort to genuinely think about the other party’s motives, they said the other party was just as motivated by love as their own party, or even slightly more motivated, but they still said that the other party was more motivated by hate than their party. The bias was reduced but not eliminated. This study tells us two major things.

We need to recognise that attribution bias exists, which can help us adjust the way we treat each other and the way we do conflict. In fact, others are more like us than we sometimes think, even when we’re divided on controversial issues. We mostly want the same things, like good jobs and a decent place to call home, even if we have different ideas about how to get there.

We also need to make the effort to truly understand people who think differently from us and what they actually want and why. Like one half of a fighting couple, we need to look in the mirror, own our part of the problem, and figure out what we can do to change instead of just blaming our partner.

Here’s one idea for election year—widen your reading of opinions to include thoughtful people who think differently to you, and as you’re reading, challenge yourself to understand their point of view before you look for flaws in their argument.

We need healthy conflict about election issues. Like a couple grappling with disagreement, we need to remember how much we have in common, that we have our own biases, and that we need empathy for each other. That gives us greater hope for the stability and the respect that we need to stay together happily well into the future, even when we disagree.

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Alex Penk

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