Life In The Wrong Political Bubble

17:38 minutes

Illustration by Rose Wong
Illustration by Rose Wong

Since the 1970s, Americans have increasingly lived in communities defined by their politics: Red states, blue states, and cities or towns that are blue or red islands in red or blue states.

As we sort ourselves—geographically and online—into spaces where people agree with us, research is finding that this “bubble” effect is good for our personal well-being. Meanwhile, living outside the bubble, among people we disagree with, can damage our ability to form relationships.

Matt Motyl, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, shares some of his findings on connecting our happiness and our politics. Even if we’re happier individuals when we isolate ourselves from our political opposites, he says, society is worse off.

Plus, Stanford sociology professor Robb Willer shares his findings about successfully persuading “the other side” on even divisive partisan issues. And Liz Joyner, director of The Village Square in Tallahassee, Florida, talks about the evidence-based work her group has done to create community across political divides.

Segment Guests

Liz Joyner

Liz Joyner is the director of The Village Square in Tallahassee, Florida.

Matt Motyl

Matt Motyl is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago and co-director of CivilPolitics.org.

Robb Willer

Robb Willer is a sociology professor at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We turn now to politics, a subject that, like religion, you’re supposed to avoid in polite company, especially in this politically charged year. But according to research conducted over the past few years, you’re actually not as likely as you once were to be in the kind of mixed company where politics talk might be contentious.

What I mean to say is that Americans are increasingly living in bubbles. Since the 1980s or so, we’ve been sorting ourselves geographically into like-minded communities of red and blue politics. And as the Republican convention gives way to the Democratic Convention next week, we wanted to explore the effects of these bubbles. What effects do they have on us and how we might reverse the polarization trend.

First new research from out of the University of Illinois Chicago and Michigan State tells us more about the people who don’t live in bubbles, but rather are surrounded by people they disagree with. And it turns out that living in discord with your neighbors can hurt your ability to befriend anyone, even the politically like minded. We want to hear from you. Are you politically isolated? The only Trump voter in Democratic country? You’re the only progressive in a conservative area?

Our number is 844-724-8255. 844-SCITALK. Or you can tweet us SciFri. My guest is Matt Motyl, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He’s also on the board of directors of a civilpolitics.org Dr. Motyl, welcome to Science Friday.

MATT MOTYL: Thanks Ira. Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, nice for you to join us. Your latest research looks at the people in the bubble but the people who are living outside of their political bubbles. How did this kind of isolation affect our well-being?

MATT MOTYL: Well, in general, when we’re encountering people that think that our beliefs are evil or crazy or wrong, it’s pretty stressful. So when we’re surrounded by these people, we feel uncomfortable, we feel like we don’t belong, and this can have a lot of negative health consequences. So our mental and physical health can suffer when we’re surrounded by these people that kind of thing we’re wrong or crazy. And by contrast, when are shunned by people that agree with us, there are lots of positive consequences. So we’re happier, we’re healthier, and we’re less stressed out because well, you’re not walking on eggshells any time you express what your important values are.

IRA FLATOW: So how are politics or are politics so important that they drive such a basic social function our ability to connect and to rely on others?

MATT MOTYL: In the last few decades, politics has become much more than just politics. It’s not whether you vote for one party or another. It’s also what church you go to or if you go to a church. It is the types of sports you like, it’s the type of places that you shop, it includes a whole lot more of your social life than just how you vote come November.

IRA FLATOW: Does that mean that people are moving to places that locations where they’re more likely to fit in politically?

MATT MOTYL: Indeed. People are moving increasingly into red or blue communities, and this is something that’s really picked up over the last 30 or 40 years. And the majority of Americans in the 1970’s lived in competitive districts where it could go either toward the Democrat or the Republican, but now about 70% to 80% of Americans, they live in these landslide districts where their party is winning by more than 20 percentage points over the other party and when that happens, you’re much less likely to encounter people that don’t share your political beliefs.

IRA FLATOW: Do we have evidence that the dislike of others as opposed to preference for the politically similar is growing?

MATT MOTYL: So the political prejudice is increasing dramatically right now. And there’s this phenomenon called affective polarization where you like your party more than the other party and this is something that’s increased dramatically over time. Whereas in the past we liked our party more than the other party but now, we actually actively dislike the other party and have very negative attitudes towards them. So this is something that’s increased over that same time period as we’ve seen this rising ideological segregation.

IRA FLATOW: Well, so if people feel isolated or are upset, it makes them their life not comfortable if they’re outside of their bubble. I mean, you would not recommend them staying there, would you?

MATT MOTYL: Right. I mean, it satisfies a basic personal psychological need to belong, so that’s why we argue that people are more likely to migrate when they’re surrounded by people that disagree with them.

IRA FLATOW: Is there anything you can do if you want to try to deal with people who don’t believe like you do? Is there any way to bring them over to have a civil discussion?

MATT MOTYL: Well, I think part of it is trying to have an open mind about who you’re talking to and not assuming that the other side is– that their attitudes are completely baseless or that they’re rooted in some sort of immorality, which is what a lot of people do when they’re thinking about the other side. They say, oh, well they must be racist or there must be something really negative, if they’re going to believe that, rather than maybe they have some kind of concrete reason or some reasonable justification for their belief.

IRA FLATOW: Now I want to bring in two more guests whose work relates to this conversation. Liz Joyner is director of the Village Square in Tallahassee and Robb Willer is a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University. Welcome Dr. Willer Liz Joyner.

ROBB WILLER: Pleasure to join you.

LIZ JOYNER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Liz, tell us what is the Village Square try to do about this?

LIZ JOYNER: Well, so as Matt described, really, the ebb and flow of daily life used to create opportunities for us to have some sort of relationship with people who had views different than ours, but these days it really doesn’t. We’re using social media and technology to spend lots of time with people just like us. So that’s not going to change because it’s part of human nature, but it means that building community across division really just has to be something that we’re intentional about now, and that’s the work of the Village Square. We have a number of events every year where our goal isn’t to solve a policy problem, write a white paper, or host a debate. It’s really about building relationships, creating empathy, and civic glue between different silos of people inside of a hometown.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re not really setting out to change people’s minds on issues? I mean, it’s very hard to change anybody’s mind, is it?

LIZ JOYNER: Yeah. Really, where I think our goal. Our goal is that you go you have to go in first through the relationship door it’s way easier to get there. Human beings have an amazing power of sort of reciprocal good to people that they know and they meet and they talk to and they break bread with. And so that’s where you have to start and if you can solve issues later, it has to start with that relationship first.

IRA FLATOW: Now, one of the reasons for Washington discord I’ve heard people talk about– I live in Washington– is that in the old days, all the congressmen and senators actually lived among each other and even though they didn’t agree with one another, their families would meet and their name maybe sit down to dinner or lunch or whatever. But now they all live at home. They go home on weekends, the people don’t spend time with each other, they don’t get to know the opposition very well. There is no interaction. It’s sort of saying what you’re saying, is that at least get people to sit down and talk with one another and see that they’re real human beings.

LIZ JOYNER: That’s right. And it’s really simple. It sounds like a little thing, and the truth is if we understood if we grasp the fact that really is what this is all about, then it becomes a matter of changing habits, of just realizing when you spend a lot of time with people who are just like you, frankly, you’re in a bubble. You’re in a silo. And that’s what creates a lot of the kind of division and anger that we’re seeing now. It’s actually easier to solve than it seems at first. If you just walk out your door and look for people who are different than you. Have a conversation.

IRA FLATOW: Robb Willer, you’ve done work looking at the language we use when we try to convince people to agree with us. What makes it so hard to communicate across ideological divides?

ROBB WILLER: Well, I mean that is the takeaway, is it is so hard. And what we find is that liberals and conservatives, when they go to persuade one another on some political issue, they tend to make arguments in terms of their own moral values and, in effect, they reach out and try to persuade one another as though they were looking into a mirror or making the arguments that they themselves find persuasive. But this neglects the fact that in the United States, liberals and conservatives tend to care about really different things. They tend to hold different moral values.

Liberals care a lot about equality, fairness, protecting vulnerable people from harm, where conservatives care a lot about group loyalty, patriotism, moral purity, just sanctity. And so one way to think about this is that our divided political map is undergirded by a very divided moral map as well.

IRA FLATOW: So I think is there no common ground, anything that– I’m looking at the Venn diagram in my mind– where we overlap that might start a discussion that people agree with?

ROBB WILLER: Yeah, I think there is some overlap, for sure. It’d be easy to exaggerate how divided we are. I think there is a little common ground, but what we’ve sought as a rhetorical technique, a path of persuasion is to acknowledge the difference, that this idea that underneath the political gulf there’s a big moral gulf and try to use it strategically in a persuasion opportunity. So when you’re interacting with somebody who’s got really different politics from you and you infer really different morals from you, can you find some way to draw a connection between your political view that you’re trying to communicate to them and their moral values rather than your own? A way that they could come to agree with you without forsaking their values.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, if you’d like to get in on our conversation, 844-724-8255 is what we’re talking about here today. It’s the political and social divide. When people sit down and have you been successful with this? Have you gotten people to sit down and look at each other and speak to each other and become productive?

ROBB WILLER: Yeah. We’ve had really good success, actually. Usually in testing arguments that we construct and then directing people to construct arguments and–

IRA FLATOW: Give me an example of how you would do this? Give me what goes on in a meeting.

ROBB WILLER: Absolutely. So for example, we constructed an argument in support of same-sex marriage in terms of patriotism and group loyalty. An argument that gay Americans are loyal, proud Americans who contribute to our military and economy and deserve the rights that our country grants to all its citizens. And we found that this sort of patriotism based message was significantly more effective than a conventional argument in terms of equality in swaying conservatives to support same-sex marriage.

And we found that this technique works for liberals as well. We found if you want to sell liberals on high levels of military spending, it works better if you argue that the military is an engine for promoting social mobility, a domain in society where minorities and the poor can compete on a level playing field. So this is a technique that seems to work either way.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. And you just have to be creative about how you do this. I would imagine. He talks sports is that out of bounds also

ROBB WILLER: I mean, obviously finding any basis of common ground, any way to break up that affectation of divide is a great idea. But yeah, we find that bringing respect and empathy to political discourse goes a long way. And it starts– in our research anyway– with saying, OK, this is what I believe this person’s moral values probably are. How might they agree with me on this political position? Because values are deeply rooted. People will fight and die for their values, and it’s going to be hard to move people on that.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. Jackie in Delafield, Wisconsin. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

Oh my gosh. Thank you for the topic. You just pitched this one right into my wheel house. I live in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is an extremely conservative part of the world. It’s also a very beautiful part of the world and I moved there as a lifelong fourth-generation registered Democrat to get my daughter in good schools, which has worked wonderfully. She’s in graduate school now.

But my point is that I found common ground with my very conservative neighbors under the idea of trees and tree protection. I am also have been managed to be elected. I’m a city council representative. If the election were not non-partisan and my wonderful neighbors who re-elected me time and again knew that I was a registered Democrat, I’m not sure they would vote for me. Or maybe think maybe they would now. But it’s quite interesting. You have to find common ground. It’s actually I think it’s important that we not live only by like-minded people. It’s kind of lonely. I often reference myself as a pioneer liberal.

IRA FLATOW: All right. This is an interesting story. Let me get a reaction, but first, let me remind everybody that this is Science Friday from PRI Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Robb Willer, Liz Joyner, and Matt Motyl. Anybody want to talk about that? That she has kept secret that she’s a registered Democrat and gotten elected as a local politician?

LIZ JOYNER: Well obviously, the anger has made it much harder to cross divides today. But one of the things that we’ve found is it’s almost like you don’t even have to have a really substantial common interest. It can be very can be something that is just superficial. So for example, in everything we do, we’re working on creating cross-cutting relationships between people who disagree, and you can disagree completely on politics, but maybe your kids play softball together. Just that, really, is a humanizing force. It lets you see people as being complex, as we are, and that changes everything.

IRA FLATOW: Liz, you call your work both mandatory and impossible. Why is it?

LIZ JOYNER: Yes, I think–

IRA FLATOW: Why is it both?

LIZ JOYNER: It’s taken decades for us to get where we are, and it’s we’re all pretty clear that it’s not a good place. Frankly, it’s going to take decades to get us out. But we have to start. There is actually no choice but to start working to turn it around, and we’re really excited about the general field that Matt and Rob are in, because we think that they’re leading the direction out, and so we are following closely behind and their learnings regarding how you do it.

One of the things that we think is so important that actually Jackie was describing is that the vast majority of this work is really going to have to be done in communities where people operate as part of a social system together, because that’s where you can build the relationships and that’s where you can transcend the labels and the silos.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s one by one finding like-minded people who want to work this out maybe. Find a way like you do.

LIZ JOYNER: Yeah. I mean, we’re out there everywhere. Matt Motyl any comment? How do you get–

MATT MOTYL: Yeah, it’s so–

IRA FLATOW: How do you search for people who are like-minded or want to do this and maybe get a group together to discuss this?

MATT MOTYL: It’s tricky, and I think that there are a lot of great community organizations just like Liz’s Village Square that tries to find these people and bring them together. Because as we live in these ideological enclaves, it’s becoming harder and harder to find people that disagree with you politically.

IRA FLATOW: So you should you just not bring up the topic when you meet them?

MATT MOTYL: That’s what people have been telling me for years over Thanksgiving dinner.

IRA FLATOW: Politics and religion, don’t bring it up at the poker game and you’ll be able to get through it. I want to thank all my guests for joining me. This has been a great discussion. Matt Motyl is assistant professor of psychology at University of Illinois Chicago. Doctor Robb Willer is professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University. Liz Joyner, director of the Village Square in Tallahassee. Liz, how can we find you on the web?

LIZ JOYNER: We actually have a few Village Square tools you can use from anywhere. Check out bookclubonrace.com, jeffersondinner.org. And if you want to see our home page, it is tothevillagesquare.org.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take a break and coming up we’re going to hear about the shocking behavior– sorry to say– of electric eels. Why do they send out those shocks? And it’s not just for capturing the prey. It’s a very interesting video pick this week coming up. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break.

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