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People feel more positive toward strangers who share their political views than toward friends who don’t, study suggests

“In many cases, political group membership mattered even more for expected friendship outcomes than length/closeness of the friendship,” the researchers said.

A Republican delegate is seen at the Charlotte Convention Center before the roll call vote to renominate Donald Trump on Monday.
A Republican delegate is seen at the Charlotte Convention Center before the roll call vote to renominate Donald Trump on Monday.
Travis Dove/Pool via REUTERS

Both Republicans and Democrats tend to be more positive about a person they’ve just met who shares their political views than about an established close friend who they’ve discovered doesn’t share those views, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

People also tend to express more trust in a new acquaintance who shares their political leanings than in a long-time friend who doesn’t, the study found.

The study’s findings support what anecdotal accounts and various surveys have already suggested: In our current highly polarized political climate, maintaining friendships across political lines has become challenging.

“Friendships are important in life,” write the study’s authors, psychologists Elana Buliga and Cara MacInnis of the University of Calgary. “They are associated with greater well-being, including heightened positive affect and physical health benefits.”

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“Uncovering factors — such as political group membership — that may influence friendship is therefore important,” they add. “Our results provide some potential reasons for why cross-political [friendships] are not more common.”

Past research has suggested that many Americans — on both the left and the right — are pretty intolerant toward those with different political persuasions. That appears to have become particularly true in recent years. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, significant shares of respondents said the election had caused them to stop talking to a family member or close friend (16 percent), block a family member or close friend from social media (17 percent) or end a relationship with a family member or close friend (13 percent).

On the other hand, one in five (20 percent) of the respondents said the election had led them to become friends with someone they had not been friends with previously.

“In the light of these recent accounts and the well-established positive influence of friendships on well-being, we were interested in how political group membership discoveries influence friendship outcomes, especially in a highly polarized political climate,” write Buliga and MacInnis.

Study details

For their study, the researchers recruited 70 Republicans and 142 Democrats (109 men and 103 women) through the online research platform TurkPrime (now known as CloudResearch). Almost 75 percent of the participants were white, and about 87 percent had more than a high school education. Their average age was 34.

After indicating the political party with which they identified, the participants ranked their social and economic views on a scale from “very Liberal” (0) to “very Conservative” (10). Other questions asked them to indicate how important their political orientation was to them (from “not important at all” to “extremely important”) and how favorably or unfavorably they felt toward members of various political parties.

They were also asked if they had any romantic partners, friends, relatives, coworkers or supervisors who held different political views than theirs and how much they discussed politics with those people.

The participants were then presented with four separate vignettes. In one they were asked to imagine meeting a friendly stranger at a social event (similar in age to them and with mutual interests) who shares their political views. In another vignette, the situation was similar, except the new acquaintance turns out to hold political views that oppose theirs.

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In the final two vignettes, participants were asked to imagine a close friend whose political views are unknown to them. (If they did not have such a friend, they were asked to imagine that they did.) In one scenario, the friend reveals that they agree with the participant’s political views. In the other, the friend discloses that their political ideology is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Participants were asked to describe how excited, happy, pleased, satisfied, surprised, upset, anxious, worried and threatened they would feel in each of the four situations. They were also asked to indicate how much they would trust the stranger or friend upon learning of their political beliefs and how hopeful they were about the friendship lasting for many years.

Key findings

The study found that the participants generally expressed more positive emotions toward people who shared their political views (“in-group members”) than those who didn’t (“out-group members”). They also had more trust in politically like-minded people than they did in people with different political bents, and were more likely to believe that their friendships with the like-minded people would last.

In addition, the participants expressed more negative emotions about people — both potential and established friends — who didn’t share their political beliefs.

In fact, the participants were more positive — and less negative — in all these regards toward strangers who shared their political views than toward close friends who didn’t. That finding may be because people have much more invested in their close friendships, which makes learning that the friend doesn’t agree with them politically “a particularly jarring surprise,” say Buliga and MacIness.

“Overall, results were consistent for Republicans and Democrats,” the researchers add. “These findings are in line with previous research where Democrats and Republicans were found to not differ in their likelihood of avoiding the political out-group.”

Limitations and implications

This study comes with important caveats. Most notably, the researchers had no way of knowing whom the participants were imagining in the vignettes about friends. They asked people to think of a close friend, but “it could be argued … that if one does not know their close friend’s political views then that, by definition, is not a close friend,” the researchers write.

The study also examined the participants’ immediate reactions to the four situations. If people had been given a longer time to reflect, they may not have expressed such negative emotions when they imagined learning that a friend had different political views.

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It’s also important to point out that plenty of people are able to maintain friendships, family relationships — and even marriages — with people who disagree with them politically.

Still, the findings underscore how strongly politics influences our friendships.

“Our results suggest that political orientation is important in friendships,” Buliga and MacInnis conclude. “In many cases, political group membership mattered even more for expected friendship outcomes than length/closeness of the friendship. … Thus, discoveries of political out-group membership may lead to friendship dissolution.”

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the the study on the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships website, but the full study is behind a paywall.