.Rebuilding a welcoming political culture

boheme magazine e-edition

By Melinda Burrell

“I want to thank all of you, because there’s no excuses in life, and I’m not going to make excuses now because we put up one heck of a fight.”

With these words, Herschel Walker conceded the Georgia Senate run-off. He also echoed the calm, often gracious, concession speeches made across the country a few weeks earlier by candidates of both parties.

Entering the holiday season, can this political calm be extended? Research shows it can. Those concession speeches are key.

A team of psychologists and neuroscientists recently reviewed studies about how to reduce partisan animosity—those negative feelings towards people in the other party. Simply learning more about the other party can help, because partisan animosity distorts how one sees others. They think members of the other party dislike them more than they actually do, and they paint an unrealistically extreme picture of them.

In a recent study, Republicans believed 30% of Democrats are atheist or agnostic. The reality? Only 8% of Democrats identify that way. Democrats believed that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000. The facts? Only 2% do.

One study revealed that even just seeing a warm interaction between political leaders helped reduce political animosity. Study participants were shown versions of a made-up news story about a dinner meeting between Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Charles Schumer.

One version reported a friendly meeting, with the senators laughing together and parting with a hug. The other version reported table-side hostility. The versions also reported different policy outcomes for the meal—either agreeing to compromises on important immigration issues or failing to reach a compromise.

The end result? Seeing the senators get along made study participants feel more warmly about the other party—even more than when the senators reached a policy compromise. How our leaders treat each other matters.

Let’s use the holiday season to build on this calm. Our political culture is ours to create.

Melinda Burrell, PhD, is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict.

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