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Changing the conversation about the motives of our political opponents

By E. Tory Higgins


“Our country is divided.” “Congress is broken.” “Our politics are polarized.” Most Americans believe there is less political co-operation and compromise than there used to be. And we know who is to blame for this situation—it’s our political opponents. Democrats know that Republicans are to blame, and Republicans know that Democrats are to blame. Not only do we know that our political opponents are to blame, but we are suspicious of their motives, of why they take the positions they take. Bottom line: we can’t trust them.

This is a serious problem for our country. One source of the problem is a misperception of what really motivates people’s political opinions, judgments, and actions. People often assume such opinions are all about self-interest or all about “carrots and sticks.” As Romney recently put it, “What the president’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote, and that strategy worked.” Plenty of commentators criticized the reference to minorities, the poor, and students as essentially being paid off for their votes, but few if any disputed the overall assumption that the “carrots” candidates offer voters determine the vote. Indeed, the field of ‘public choice’ in economics assumes just this, that voters are guided by their own self-interest and “vote their pocketbooks.”

What does it mean for our political conversation to assume that the opinions, judgments, and actions of our political opponents are motivated by self-interest? It means that their stands on political issues are selfish rather than being in the best interest of our country. We can’t trust them to be concerned about what is best for the rest of us because our interests are different than their interests. We assume that they do not have good will. But what if people are not primarily motivated by self-interest (by “carrots”) in the political domain or in any other domain of life? In fact, there is substantial evidence from research on human motivation that what people want goes well beyond attaining “carrots” (or “gifts”). What they want is to be effective.

Brian Deese, right, Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and Economic Advisor Gene Sperling confer as President Barack Obama calls regional politicians to inform them of the next day’s announcement about General Motors filing for bankruptcy, Sunday night, May 31, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Yes, one way of being effective is to have desired outcomes, which can include attaining “carrots” (and avoiding “sticks”). But there is much more to being effective. People also want to be effective at establishing what’s real or right or correct (being effective in finding the truth), as when people want to hear the truth about themselves or what is happening in their lives even if “the truth hurts.” Indeed, people want to observe, discover, and learn about all kinds of things in the world that have nothing to do with their attaining “carrots” (or avoiding “sticks”). And people also want to manage what happens, to have an effect on the world (being effective in having control), as when children jump up and down in a puddle just to make a splash. Indeed, people will take on pain and even risk injury to feel in control of a difficult and challenging activity, as illustrated most vividly in extreme sports.

It is establishing what’s real (truth) and managing what happens (control) that often are our primary motivations — rather than self-interest — and this is both good news and bad news if we are to change the political conversation. The bad news is that humans, uniquely among animals, establish truth by sharing reality with others who agree with their beliefs (or with whom they can establish agreed-upon assumptions). And when they do create a shared reality with others, they experience their beliefs as objective — the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This means that when others disagree with these beliefs, as when Democrats and Republicans disagree with each other, each side is so certain that what they believe is reality, that they infer that those on the other side must either be lying about what they truly believe or they are too stupid to recognize the truth or they are simply crazy. These derogations of our political opponents don’t derive from our self-interests being in conflict with them. It is more serious than that. It derives from the establishment of a different shared reality to them, a shared reality that we are highly motivated to maintain because it gives us the truth about the how the world works.

This is bad news indeed. But if we understand that out political opponents just want to be effective in truth, there is a ‘good news’ silver lining. The good news is that we need not characterize our political opponents as being selfish, or liars, or stupid, or crazy. We need not question their good will. Instead, we can recognize that they, like us, want truth and control, and they want truth and control to work together effectively. They want to “go in the right direction.” They, like us, want our country to be strong. They want Americans to live in peace and prosperity. Yes, they have different ideas about what direction is the right one to make this happen, but this is something we can discuss. In order to establish what’s real, manage what happens, and go in the right direction — which are ways of being effective that we all want — we need to listen to one another and and learn from one another. This is a political conversation worth having. Let us have that respectful, serious conversation in the New Year and search for common ground. Good will to all.

E. Tory Higgins is the author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He has received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the William James Fellow Award for Distinguished Achievements in Psychological Science (from the Association for Psychological Science), and the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions. He is also a recipient of Columbia’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.

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