The darker side of being politically confident

April 21, 2024

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The darker side of being politically confident

Could being well-informed about politics mean you are less tolerant of differing political opinions? The answer might surprise you and be cause for pause before your next political conversation—or your next hiring decision or how you interact with team members.

New research suggests that those who feel self-confident about their political knowledge and understanding are more likely to discriminate against those who hold opposing political views. And those who are more skeptical of their political abilities are more likely to treat other people fairly when they disagree politically.

The study was published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

What the researchers say: “We usually think that it is a good thing to feel confident about your abilities to understand a subject. People who believe they can make a difference in politics tend to be good citizens — they keep up with current events and participate in elections,” the lead researcher said. “In this research, we highlight the dark side of political self-confidence. When people feel self-assured about their political abilities, they are closed-minded, hostile, and ready to discriminate against those who do not share their political views.”

Political polarization and growing animosity toward opposing views is becoming more of an issue. It prevents political progress and divides more people in the US and other countries.

In the 2022 mid-term election, for example, three out of 10 Americans said political polarization was the top issue facing the nation. Around two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans believe members of the other party are dishonest and only 20% of marriages are politically mixed.

As there are many explanations for polarization, an explanation less explored is political confidence and strong self-assurance.

The research involved two parts; the first relied on survey data to evaluate political efficacy and views of the political parties; the second was a survey experiment to evaluate tolerance of political discrimination.

In the first part of the study, 1,000 Americans were sampled in a national online survey just before the 2020 presidential election and asked about their opinions about the opposing political party.

Those in the study who felt knowledgeable about politics and confident about their political abilities are referred to as having high internal political efficacy, whereas those who are more unsure have lower internal political efficacy.

The researchers found that those with the greatest confidence in their political understanding were the most likely to express hostility toward those with opposing views. People with high internal efficacy were willing to sever social ties over political differences and refuse conversations with anyone who disagreed with them politically. Additionally, people with high political self-confidence were more likely to tolerate partisan discrimination, saying they believed that it is okay to treat people differently because of their political views.

In the survey experiment, respondents were given a description of a hiring manager who refused to interview a job applicant based on the applicant’s previous leadership of either a College Democrats or College Republicans group.

The results found most people felt that it was not acceptable to discriminate against the job candidate for their political views, but those with the greatest internal political efficacy were the most likely to say that it was okay to not hire someone affiliated with the opposing political party.

Self-confidence is important and it is often seen as something very positive and admirable. However, these results suggest that in the context of politics, while it is important to be involved and think of yourself as an expert, it can motivate animosity.

Individuals who are politically confident and a frequent voter are more likely to contribute to adversarial politics and partisan negativity — suggesting that confidence can be a source of political polarization.

Second, people are less uncomfortable with discrimination when it’s directed at the differing political party. Therefore, this study suggests that those with political confidence need to be more mindful of how they are evaluating information and their own confirmation biases when considering opposing views.

“Some people are deeply engaged in politics — they watch the news every day, follow political content on social media and talk about current events with friends and family. Other people rarely think about politics at all,” the lead author said. “While these folks are less politically assertive, they are much more willing to spend time with people who disagree with them. They are also much less likely to engage in partisan discrimination.”

While these findings underscore the potential negative implications of having strong political convictions, they do not propose individuals change their opinions. Rather, the findings provide insight on how people can mitigate political polarization by thoughtfully considering how they view those who may think differently on an issue or how they might approach their next conversation about the 2024 election.

So, what? Polarization is, at least to some extent, part of our DNA. We naturally gravitate to, rely on and protect those with whom we have most in common. When various political actors—especially populist candidates—stress the differences between those that follow them and those of other races, classes, ethnicities etc. they are utilizing the fear that we naturally have of those that are different to us.

Polarization will only be reduced when “leaders” begin to look for and emphasize the commonalities between groups. That time may well be a long way away.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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