Could Zoom save the United States?

Conservatives and liberals get along, have more meaningful and productive discussions when using the video conferencing service, study shows

LOS ANGELES — It’s no secret U.S. politics are becoming more and more polarizing in recent years. There seems to be less and less room for cordial debate and discourse between conservatives and liberals, but fascinating new research out of California finds it’s still possible to find some common ground — at least digitally.

Scientists at UCLA report a group of liberals and conservatives were able to have meaningful and congenial political discussions when those conversations took place on the video chatting platform Zoom.

These findings are especially interesting considering how toxic political discourse has become across most online settings, including social media. Conversing face-to-face on Zoom, however, is quite different than arguing with an anonymous user on Twitter. Study authors explain that most study participants, when instructed to talk one-on-one with a person holding different political views via Zoom, instinctively connected with that person and generally reported having a better experience than they expected.

Moreover, the volunteers reported leaving their chats with a greater appreciation for the other person’s views and even said they felt less rigid about their own opinions.

Political rivals can be pretty nice people too

All in all, researchers say their work suggests video chatting may be a very useful tool in bridging the current political divide in the United States. However, they add there are a number of caveats to consider. For instance, whether or not an audience was observing the talks and if it appeared that they were influencing the amount of conflict between the participants.

“Most studies about cross-ideological communication are either written retrospectively about past experiences or speculatively, but almost no one has looked at what happens when people actually have the conversation,” says UCLA psychology professor and study author Matthew Lieberman in a university release.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that researchers have used Zoom to have these conversations,” he adds. “We’re using it as the experimental platform, and we experimentally manipulated whether or not people had an audience on the platform.”

The research team gathered a group of volunteers with either strong liberal or conservative political opinions from all over the United States. The team asked each person to imagine how a conversation with a political opponent would go, and how they would probably feel afterwards. Predictably, most participants weren’t all that excited to meet their “political opposites” and usually predicted conflict and outrage during the talk, followed by a bad mood afterwards.

To start, each participant chatted over Zoom with someone holding similar political views. Then, they talked with their political opposite. During about half of those cross-ideological conversations, the “in-group members” that participants spoke to first (one conservative and one liberal) stayed on to silently observe the next conversation regarding an especially hot-button topic.

Researchers recorded all of the conversations. This allowed the team to compare the chats with participants’ subjective post-conversation assessments. The conversations revolved around one of the following opinions:

  • In an unintended pregnancy, the father has a right to have a say in deciding about an abortion.
  • People shouldn’t be forced into the categories of male or female; gender is a spectrum.
  • Cities should defund the police to combat systemic discrimination.
  • Colleges should use affirmative action policies when making admissions decisions.
  • Private businesses should have the right to refuse service when it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Chats get ugly when our political peers are watching

When two participants were speaking privately, the chats usually started very politely and remained mostly congenial. However, several did become rather heated. Some of these discussions were similar to how family members dance around a delicate political topic during a holiday get-together, study authors note.

Still, the average participant told researchers that they spent less time in conflict during the conversation, and found it more enjoyable, less stressful, and easier than they had predicted. Many said they liked their opposite more than they expected to and found them less emotional and more logical than they anticipated. This trend held up even among pairs who had heated arguments.

Importantly, however, more conflicts arose in conversations when people knew their fellow conservatives or liberals were silently watching. Knowing that these political allies were watching seemed to make it much more difficult for people to find common ground with their political opposites. When an in-group member was watching, both participants and researchers rated the conversations as more stressful and difficult.

Even when there was a silent observer, participants still reported having a better time than they expected and came away with generally positive impressions of their conversation partners.

Now, Prof. Lieberman’s team is using near-infrared spectroscopy to continue their work. Chat partners will wear a cap with sensors that measures blood oxygen levels, providing a peek into brain activity and synchronization during cross-ideological Zoom conversations.

The findings appear in the journal PLoS ONE.

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