Political polarisation has become a powerful force of division in the UK. In a 2018 survey, fewer than half of Labour and Conservative voters said they were willing to talk about politics with someone from the other side, and around 75% wouldn’t be happy for their child to marry someone from the opposite political side.
When political views become political identities, we see people who agree with us in a positive light (intelligent, selfless and open minded), and people who disagree with us as the opposite. Researchers have found that, when people disagree politically, they disregard each others’ expertise in unrelated domains – even when it loses them money.
Britain hasn’t healed after Brexit
The 2016 Brexit referendum created new polarised identities – Brexiteer and Remainer – with animosity between opposing sides. Polarisation has risen in the wake of the Brexit referendum and, as of 2019, was at its highest point since the start of the millennium.
Many initially hailed the Coronavirus pandemic as a unique opportunity for Britain to rebuild its social cohesion – to bring neighborhoods closer together and reignite a sense of trust in our community. But the pandemic has not been a healing force: survey data from June 2020 shows that people’s trust towards their neighbors and community was even lower than in previous years, with deprived areas particularly affected during the pandemic.
In partnership with Reach publishing and Unbound Philanthropy, we launched Britain Connects to see if a simple conversation could begin to reduce political polarisation.
We know that bringing different groups of people together can be effective in reducing prejudice in many contexts, but it can also backfire. For example being exposed to Twitter feeds of opposing sides of US politics resulted in increased polarisation.
With that in mind, we offered members of the public an opportunity to have a conversation with their “political opposite” across three domains: Labour/Conservative voter; Leave/Remain voter; and socially conservative/liberal. Because the UK went into national lockdown just as we started organising the programme, our participants met online via a video call.
We used principles from social psychology and conflict resolution to help people get along.
We wanted to help people connect and discuss their politics and experiences in a mutually enjoyable way. So, we gave participants extra information about one another and conversation prompts based on the psychology of reducing conflict and fostering liking.
How did the meetings go?
We ran a randomised control trial to measure the impact of Britain Connects conversations, and to see whether our conversation prompts helped people get along.
We found that:
- People who had the meetings felt warmer towards their political opposite, compared with people who hadn’t yet met.
- Our conversation prompts helped people get along – people who received them were more likely to share their contact details after the meeting, than people who met without these prompts.
- The meetings had no impact on other metrics of polarisation, such as social trust, willingness to to form friendships with the political outgroup or engage with information they disagree with.
However, we found that some people, despite signing up for the project, were still resistant to actually meeting their opposite and asked to pull out once they saw the reality of their match’s views.
This resistance towards meeting people we dislike is one of the greatest challenges to bringing people together in practice. The more prejudice people hold, the greater the barrier to engaging in intergroup contact.
Academics and policymakers seeking to apply intergroup contact in practice should ensure they break down people’s barriers to engagement – particularly for those who have the highest levels of prejudice to begin with, for example using further upstream interventions to encourage people to participate in the first place.
We’ve found that a promising way to reduce polarisation is to create opportunities for conversations between people who disagree – and that some simple conversation prompts can help people get along better.
However, more work is needed to encourage people to engage with diverse viewpoints and be open towards people who are different from them. We are now looking for ways to scale up this approach and find even better ways to improve dialogue between people who disagree.
If you are interested in finding out more about Britain Connects, click here to download our report.