The Art of Political Discourse, Brought to You by Science

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This election has walked right into our homes, our relationships —we’re even talking to our therapists about Donald and Hillary. Our episode this week looks at what this election stress is doing to our bodies. And it got us wondering, what can science tell us about less stressful ways to engage with the other side?

The American Psychological Association recently released a guide to coping with stress from the election. It encourages people to limit their media consumption and avoid conversations about the election.

All good choices for our health, but not necessarily for the country.

Matt Motyl is a political psychologist. He says the APA’s advice amounts to sticking our heads in the ground. It’s not the best coping strategy, but it’s what we usually do. Over the last four decades, we’ve migrated away from each other, both figuratively and literally.

“There’s a lack of relationships,” Motyl says. “So when somebody tells you something nasty about the other side, you’re more inclined to believe it, because you don’t have conflicting information.”

According to Motyl, if we all just talked a little, partisanship would be far less pronounced. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that face-to-face conversations work. A study published earlier this year found that a single ten-minute conversation between strangers could do more to cure prejudice than over a decade of media coverage and policy changes.

In this election where so many have disregarded rules of civil discourse, dialogue has never seemed less appealing. But researchers have found that these strategies can make the process a little bit easier.

Draw from personal experience.

Statistics aren’t actually all that important. People, as it turns out, don’t make decisions that wayA study on the effectiveness of canvassing about transgender rights found that it is far more important that the other person relates to your perspective. So talk about yourself, remind the other person that you’re a human, and they’ll be more likely to hear you out.

Make a concession.

You are not completely right, and the other person is not completely wrong. Introduce politics by mentioning something you think the other person’s party does well. Doing so prevents the conversation from becoming a competition, which is bad for relationships.

Watch your word choice.

A computer program could spot a congressperson’s party 87 percent of the time just by looking at certain terms they used. A liberal might say “undocumented worker” while a conservative would say “illegal immigrant.” Be careful with the words you choose—they might be more loaded than you think.

Find common ground.

Focus on the issues you know the other person cares about. Even if you don’t agree on the solutions, agreeing on the problems is a start. A study found that focusing on shared threats like climate change increases cooperation between groups.

Share a meal.

There hasn’t been much academic research on food and conversation, but organizations like Civil Politics and the Village Square have found that sharing a meal encourages dialogue between groups. There’s just something about food that alleviates tension and builds bonds. 

Even if your conversation does go awry, take heart: you can blame it on the politicians. Political economist Matthew Gentzkow says that ultimately we mimic the kind incivility we see our party leaders enacting. It will take change on their part to shift the national dialogue, but that shouldn’t stop you from reaching across the dinner table this Thanksgiving.