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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Attributions of emotion and reduced attitude openness prevent people from engaging others with opposing views

Teeny, J. D., & Petty, R. E. (2022).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 
102, 104373.


People exhibit a general unwillingness to engage others on social issues for which they disagree (e.g., political elections, police funding, vaccine mandates, etc.), a phenomenon that contributes to the political polarization vexing societies today. Previous research has largely attributed this unwillingness to the perception that such counterattitudinal targets are extreme, certain, and/or difficult to change on these topics. However, the present research offers an additional theoretical explanation. First, we introduce a less studied perception of targets, their affective-cognitive attitude basis (i.e., the degree to which an attitude is seemingly based on emotions versus reasons) that is critical in determining engagement willingness. Specifically, perceivers are less willing to engage with targets who are perceived to hold an affective (vs. cognitive) attitude basis on a topic, because these targets are inferred to have low attitudinal openness on it (i.e., expected to be unlikely to genuinely “hear out” the perceiver). Second, we use a series of multimethod studies with varied U.S. samples to show why this person perception process is central to understanding counterattitudinal engagement. Compared to proattitudinal targets, perceivers on both sides of an issue ascribe more affective (vs. cognitive) attitude bases to rival (counterattitudinal) targets, which cues inferences of reduced attitudinal openness, thereby diminishing people's willingness to engage with these individuals.

From the General Discussion

One of the foremost paths to combatting political polarization is to have people of opposing views engage with counterattitudinal others (e.g., Broockman & Kalla, 2016). Unfortunately, people tend to be unwilling to do this, which previous research has largely attributed to perceptions about the target’s attitudinal extremity, certainty, and the perceived difficulty required to change the target’s mind. However, in the current research, effects on these measures were not only inconsistent (see Footnotes 2 and 4 as well as the web appendix), but they also had reduced explanatory power relative to the focal perceptions outlined here. That is, regardless of how certain, extreme, or difficult to change a counterattitudinal target was perceived to be, it was the affect (relative to cognition) ascribed to their attitude that predicted inferences of reduced attitudinal openness, which in turn determined bipartisan engagement.

These findings emerged across multiple topics, varied study designs, and in light of targets presenting actual rationale for their opinions.  Moreover, post-hoc analyses reveal that these effects were neither moderated by which side of the issue the participants took, nor the participant’s ideological stance (i.e., both liberals and conservatives demonstrated these effects), nor the participants’ own perceived attitude basis.