Thursday, 5 January 2006

Disagreeing about what we disagree about

Anyone who has watched Prime Minister’s Questions lately will have seen Tony Blair desperately trying to demonstrate the manifold ways in which he disagrees with the new Tory leader David Cameron. Blair won’t want to read this new study by John Chambers and colleagues, demonstrating that when it comes to controversial issues, we may all agree more than we realise, with members of groups with opposing views tending to underestimate how much the opposite camp agree with their own core values.

Chambers recruited 199 psychology students who held strong views on the abortion debate, being either pro-lifers who are against abortion, or pro-choice, believing in the rights of women to choose. The students rated how much they favoured or opposed issues such as the value of human life, and freedom from government interference, as well as indicating how important they felt each issue was. They then predicted the ratings given by members of the opposite camp.

The researchers found that the students tended to underestimate how much members of the opposite camp agreed with them on the issues they felt were most important. So, for example, the pro-life students rated the value of human life as particularly important, but they underestimated how much pro-choice students also recognised the importance of this issue. By contrast, pro-choice students accurately predicted how strongly pro-lifers felt about the value of human life, but underestimated how much they also recognised the importance of women’s rights. In other words, the two groups were disagreeing about what they disagreed about, with each group tending to believe it was their own core values that were the key source of conflict.

Chambers’ team replicated these findings with students who were either politically neutral, or allied to the Republican or Democratic party. Again, the politically affiliated students tended to underestimate how much the other group were sympathetic to their own core values, for example the funding of public education (Democrat) or crime prevention (Republican). The neutral students, by contrast, more accurately perceived how little disagreement there was between the Republican and Democratic students on these issues.

In light of their findings, the researchers said intergroup conflict might be helped by having “…partisans think about the social conflict through the frame of their adversaries’ ideological values. Doing so might bring partisans to the realisation not only that there is an alternative and equally valid set of ideals involved in the debate, but also that they and their adversaries share similar opinions about those ideals”.

Chambers, J.R., Baron, R.S. & Inman, M.L. (2006). Misperception in intergroup conflict. Disagreeing about what we disagree about. Psychological Science, 17, 38-45.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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