The research shows that the middle ground can be reached on intellectual terms but often is not because individuals view their opponents' arguments as attacks upon their core values and therefore themselves, said John Chambers, a UF psychology professor.
"Members of partisan social groups often view their adversaries with suspicion, distrust and outright animosity," said Chambers, whose study appears in the January 2006 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (previously the American Psychological Society). "It is not unusual to hear loyal members of the Republican Party complain about Democrats' 'attack on traditional family values and the free market,' and to hear loyal Democrats chastise Republicans for their 'war on the poor' or their 'siege on the environment.'"
Such inflamed beliefs not only characterize disputes between these two political parties, but also can be heard in debates between other social groups with competing ideologies, such as labor-management conflicts, environmentalist-business struggles, tensions between warring nations and race-related problems, Chambers said.
People with contrasting views assume their adversaries contest the core values they care about most deeply, but opposing groups share more beliefs than they realize, he said.
The study surveyed 199 abortion-rights and anti-abortion students in an elementary psychology course at the University of Iowa. They were presented with two abortion-rights value issues - women's reproductive rights and freedom from government interference in private lives - and two anti-abortion issues - the value of human life and a moral code of sexual conduct. The students were asked to rate their own opinions and to estimate that of the typical person with the opposite view.
"To be sure, real differences of opinion existed between the groups," said Chambers, who did the research with Robert Baron, a University of Iowa psychologist and Mary Inman, a Hope College psychologist. "Compared to pro-life participants, pro-choice participants had more favorable personal attitudes toward the pro-choice issues and less favorable attitudes toward the pro-life issues, and vice versa."
But abortion-rights participants perceived much more disagreement with their adversaries about the abortion-rights issues, such as women's reproductive rights, than they perceived about anti-abortion issues, such as a moral code of sexual conduct, Chambers said. On the other hand, anti-abortion participants perceived much more disagreement with their abortion-rights adversaries about the anti-abortion issues than about the abortion-rights issues, he said.
At the same time groups perceived large differences of opinion with their adversaries about issues that were important to their own side, the groups actually believed that they and their adversaries agreed on issues that were important to their adversaries' side, the study shows. For example, abortion-rights people believed that they and anti-abortion people both favored anti-abortion issues, such as the value of human life.
"What's happening is that the two groups assume that the nature of the debate is really a matter of disagreement about their own sides' core issues," Chambers said. "Each side is assuming that people in the other group oppose what they hold most dear to themselves - what's most important to their side - but in fact their adversaries really don't oppose them."
Chambers believes the findings can be used to better understand inter-group conflict and how groups perceive each other, and to reduce stereotyping. If both sides can think about their differences in terms of what is most important to their adversaries, it might reduce conflict.
"Pro-life people need to understand that pro-choice people are not necessarily opposed to the value of human life or a moral code of sexual conduct, but they're just more strongly in favor of women's reproductive rights and freedom from government interference in private lives," he said. "At the same time, pro-choice people should see that pro-life people are not against women's reproductive rights and freedom from government interference, they're simply more supportive of the value of human life and a moral code of sexual conduct."
Walter Stephan, an emeritus psychology professor at New Mexico State University and expert in the area of inter-group relations, said Chambers' research is valuable. "If the findings from this study can be put in the hands of partisans, they hold the promise of reducing the intensity of some of the major conflicts of our times," he said.
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Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The Association for Psychological Science represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.