Harmony vs. Knowledge: New Study Suggests Liberals Avoid Opposing Views as Much as Conservatives

As tensions remain at the forefront of US politics, the political left might consider itself more open-minded than the right. But a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests conservatives and liberals are equally motivated to avoid being confronted with opposing viewpoints.

The study contradicts previous research characterizing the political right as more prone to selective exposure. Social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Winnipeg who conducted the study offered monetary rewards in order to entice participants (from the US and Canada) to expose themselves to opposing ideals and information and found that conservatives and liberals were equally disinclined to hear contradictory views, even choosing to forgo money to avoid them. The study itself has several shortcomings, however. It focuses only on the United States and Canada, and most of the participants are white. It’s also unclear whether the participants are self-identifying “conservatives” and “liberals” or if those identifiers had been applied to them.

Although more thorough research is needed, this research does hold up a mirror. Researchers tested participants with statements regarding climate change, gun control, abortion, and other issues. Interestingly, the participants did not cite already feeling knowledgeable or fatigued as an explanation for their aversion. “Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance,” such that would require effort or cause frustration, researchers reported, and “undermine a sense of shared reality with the person expressing disparate views” that would harm relationships. In other words, we place greater importance on being agreeable than being knowledgeable. This partisan bias is detrimental to effective activism and a worldview based on reason and allyship.

Even if we may not identify with conservatives or liberals, we must recognize that more work is needed to ensure that evidence-based reasoning informs our worldview. Moreover, white people must address what our affinity to maintain agreeable relationships with other white people is costing those who are affected by the systematic oppression we actively perpetuate (no matter our political affiliation), but don’t confront.

Several questions remain: If we refuse to be exposed to conflicting worldviews for the sake of maintaining relationships, do we react the same way to those that critically challenge our engagement in systematic issues? Are we listening to those we claim to be allies with? The study concludes that the first step toward combating our biases is to “recognize our collective vulnerability to perceiving the world in ways that validate our political beliefs.” As humanists, we must continue to build our community, to be highly aware when we are accepting of information that supports our existing beliefs, and that we remain open to hearing viewpoints that differ as well as challenge our own. Intellectual humility is an asset in our shared effort to live ethical lives for the betterment of society.