Here is the full transcript of social psychologist Robb Willer’s TEDx Talk: How to Fix Our Broken Political Conversations at TEDxMarin conference.
Robb Willer – Social psychologist
So you probably have the sense, as most people do, that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s been in really any of our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition.
And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes. In study after study, we find that liberals and conservatives have grown further apart. They increasingly wall themselves off in these ideological silos, consuming different news, talking only to like-minded others and more and more choosing to live in different parts of the country. And I think that most alarming of all of it is seeing this rising animosity on both sides. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, more and more — they just don’t like one another.
You see it in many different ways. They don’t want to befriend one another. They don’t want to date one another. If they do, if they find out, they find each other less attractive, and they more and more don’t want their children to marry someone who supports the other party, a particularly shocking statistic.
You know, in my lab, the students that I work with, we’re talking about some social pattern — I’m a movie buff, and so I’m often like, what kind of movie are we in here with this pattern? So what kind of movie are we in with political polarization? Well, it could be a disaster movie.
It certainly seems like a disaster. Could be a war movie. Also fits. But what I keep thinking is that we’re in a zombie apocalypse movie. Right? You know the kind.
There’s people wandering around in packs, not thinking for themselves, seized by this mob mentality, trying to spread their disease and destroy society. And if you’re like me, and you’re a college-educated liberal — and statistically, I’m guessing, the majority of you are exactly that.
And you probably think, as I do, that you’re the good guy in the zombie apocalypse movie, and all this hate and polarization, it’s being propagated by the other people, the conservatives. We’re Brad Pitt, right? Free-thinking, righteous, just trying to hold on to what we hold dear, you know, not foot soldiers in the army of the undead. Not that. Never that.
But here’s the thing: what movie do you suppose they think they’re in? Right? Well, they absolutely think that they’re the good guys in the zombie apocalypse movie. Right? And you’d better believe that they think that they’re Brad Pitt and that we — we are the zombies. And who’s to say that they’re wrong? Look, they click on stupid internet links that say stuff like that. We click on stupid internet links that say stuff like this.
They complain about living near us, having to work with us, even eating Thanksgiving dinner with us. And we do all those same things. Right? Look, it’s true. The studies that I see on polarization show that conservatives look a little bit worse. They look a little bit angrier, a little more averse to compromise.
And we could tell ourselves that means that this is not our problem. That it’s them doing it. But I think that would be taking the easy way out. I think that the truth is that we’re all a part of this. And the good side of that is that we can be a part of the solution.
So what are we going to do? What can we do to chip away at polarization in everyday life? What could we do to connect with and communicate with our political counterparts? Well, these were exactly the questions that I and my colleague Matt Feinberg became fascinated with a few years ago, and we started doing research on this topic.
And one of the first things that we discovered that I think is really helpful for understanding polarization is to understand that the political divide in our country is undergirded by a deeper moral divide. So one of the most robust findings in the history of political psychology is this pattern identified by Jon Haidt and Jesse Graham, psychologists, that liberals and conservatives tend to endorse different values to different degrees.
So for example, we find that liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do, and conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do. And Matt and I were thinking that maybe this moral divide might be helpful for understanding how it is that liberals and conservatives talk to one another and why they so often seem to talk past one another when they do.
So we conducted a study where we recruited liberals to a study where they were supposed to write a persuasive essay that would be compelling to a conservative in support of same-sex marriage. And what we found was that liberals tended to make arguments in terms of the liberal moral values of equality and fairness.
So they said things like “everyone should have the right to love whoever they choose,” and they — “they” being gay Americans — “deserve the same equal rights as other Americans.” Overall, we found that 69 percent of liberals invoked one of the more liberal moral values in constructing their essay, and only nine percent invoked one of the more conservative moral values, even though they were supposed to be trying to persuade conservatives.