E. Kubin, C. Puryear, C. Shein, & K. GrayProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Feb 2021, 118 (6) e2008389118
Both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in political discussions helps to foster mutual respect, but 15 studies—across multiple methodologies and issues—show that these beliefs are mistaken. Political opponents respect moral beliefs more when they are supported by personal experiences, not facts. The respect-inducing power of personal experiences is revealed by survey studies across various political topics, a field study of conversations about guns, an analysis of YouTube comments from abortion opinion videos, and an archival analysis of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN. The personal experiences most likely to encourage respect from opponents are issue-relevant and involve harm. Mediation analyses reveal that these harm-related personal experiences increase respect by increasing perceptions of rationality: everyone can appreciate that avoiding harm is rational, even in people who hold different beliefs about guns, taxes, immigration, and the environment. Studies show that people believe in the truth of both facts and personal experiences in nonmoral disagreement; however, in moral disagreements, subjective experiences seem truer (i.e., are doubted less) than objective facts. These results provide a concrete demonstration of how to bridge moral divides while also revealing how our intuitions can lead us astray. Stretching back to the Enlightenment, philosophers and scientists have privileged objective facts over experiences in the pursuit of truth. However, furnishing perceptions of truth within moral disagreements is better accomplished by sharing subjective experiences, not by providing facts.
All Americans are affected by rising political polarization, whether because of a gridlocked Congress or antagonistic holiday dinners. People believe that facts are essential for earning the respect of political adversaries, but our research shows that this belief is wrong. We find that sharing personal experiences about a political issue—especially experiences involving harm—help to foster respect via increased perceptions of rationality. This research provides a straightforward pathway for increasing moral understanding and decreasing political intolerance. These findings also raise questions about how science and society should understand the nature of truth in the era of “fake news.” In moral and political disagreements, everyday people treat subjective experiences as truer than objective facts.