March 30, 2023

The Agreement Paradox

Reducing political polarization through disagreement.

By Dr. Luke Conway

In case you hadn’t noticed, America is a bit of a mess right now.

The country is as polarized as it has been for a long, long time. In most scientific studies of worldwide increases in polarization, the United States ranks at or near the top. Americans have taken note: Recent polls show that polarization is consistently listed as a main concern among the U.S. populace. Lots of Americans are looking around and wondering “why the heck are all these groups shouting at each other all the time?”

How do we get out of this quagmire? Psychology research suggests a somewhat surprising answer to our dilemma: The way out of our polarized society is to stop caring so much about polarization.

The Seduction of Forced Agreement

To see why that is, let’s start with a psychological fact: Disagreement bothers us. That’s why people love words like “together” and “unity” and hate words like “torn asunder” and “divorce.” Our ideal worlds are generally not populated with separation from others. Thus, it is hardly surprising that psychological research shows we have a fundamental need to belong. We want to fit in; and agreement is one of the main ways we do that.

These motives to agree with others are often healthy. There is nothing wrong with wanting to get along. There is nothing wrong with wanting to belong to a group. We were made for fellowship.

However, ironically, this desire for agreement — when given a too-exalted place — can undermine the very thing it is trying to create. Often, we feel so strongly that we want agreement that we put in top-down pressures to force agreement. We want everyone to agree with us about vaccines, so we force everyone to say the same thing. We want everyone to agree with us about religion, so we force people to say only one point of view.

But this kind of forced agreement, even when done with good motives, is a disaster for society. Research sheds some light on why this is the case. As Stanley Milgram’s and Solomon Asch’s classic research taught us, to a surprising degree, people comply with social pressure. If you try and force people to agree, it generally works. But while pressure creates superficial agreement, it also causes two other things to happen simultaneously. First, even if people comply, they are really upset at being told what to do. This is what psychologists call reactance. People don’t like their freedom being taken away, and pressure to agree does exactly that. Second, people who observe the forced agreement believe it is artificial, something our lab calls informational contamination. If I believe you said you agreed with vaccine mandates only because you were forced to, I don’t trust your stated belief. And this interferes with our ability to come to anything like real common ground. Ironically, in forcing agreement, we cut off the actual potential for genuine, meaningful agreement to grow. In the place of potentially solid ground, forced agreement provides a psychologically contaminated, shifting sand upon which it is hard to build anything lasting.

That’s partially where we are now. We’ve increasingly responded to our divisions by trying to bludgeon the other side into some kind of forced agreement. The results have been disastrous. Divisive figures like Donald Trump weren’t the cause of our disagreements; they were the symptoms of forced agreement. Even people who agree with the side being pushed upon the populace lose faith in their own side when they feel agreement is forced. This isn’t sustainable long-term. If we keep trying to bludgeon the other side into agreement, we’ll find there really is no “there” at the end of that road — for either side.

The Better Road: Love Does Not Equal Agreement

Fortunately, this paradoxical psychological analysis implies a very straightforward solution to our problem: Let’s stop caring so much that we all disagree. If we stop obsessing over the fact that we are polarized, we will become less polarized. A desire for agreement partially got us into this mess; and a tolerance of disagreement can get us out of it. Rather than trying to agree, we should vigorously disagree without fear.

Of course, I don’t mean that we should disagree hatefully. The very fact that many readers will assume I’m suggesting an all-out, rage-filled, free-for-all illustrates part of our problem. That’s because somewhere along the way, we got it into our heads that love and agreement are inseparable. It is often hard for us to imagine loving someone that we disagree with. Because of this implicit psychological overlap between agreement and love, it is natural to assume that when I say we need more disagreement, I mean we need more hate. To us, love equals agreement. And in fact, psychological research suggests that’s exactly how we behave, an effect so strong that it has been given its own name: The Similarity-Attraction Effect (SAE).

But a moment’s reflection shows that “love = agreement” is a lie. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Love doesn’t end where agreement ends. Love begins where agreement ends. It is easy to “love” someone who agrees with you, who validates yourself and your place in the world. True love involves fully disagreeing with someone and loving them anyway.

That’s probably why Jesus Christ spends a striking amount of time talking about loving people from whom we get no benefit. You see, we are prone to falling into the SAE trap. Jesus says in Luke 6:32, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?” Applied to our present case, this suggests we need to separate out the benefits we get from agreement from the duty we have to love others. What we really need is to separate loving our neighbor from agreeing with our neighbor.

But note both sides of this separation. You should be kind to your enemies, but it is fine to disagree with your enemies. Jesus didn’t say “pretend your enemies agree with you.” One doesn’t have to read very far into the New Testament to realize that a large percentage of the Bible heroes disagreed vigorously with their enemies.

Realizing this is freeing. We need to resist the subtle psychological lie that a stable relationship, a stable family, or a stable society means that we have to agree on everything. In fact, that is dishonest and unproductive. Our society was originally formed on a better principle: The acknowledgment that disagreements are inevitable and often healthy. The founding fathers weren’t so much trying to create a world where everyone agreed as they were trying to provide a stable mechanism where people could disagree as much as they liked, where we could vigorously work out our disagreements in the public sphere. That’s what separates America from almost everywhere else. And what the country really needs is to get back to that, to release the valve that says, “we must all agree” and instead foster more and more respectful disagreement.

So, I say, disagree more. Disagree vigorously. Disagree passionately and with conviction. But, as Jesus admonishes, love those who are your enemies. Disagree respectfully. Disagree fairly. You do not have to pretend your enemies are your friends. That’s the opposite of what it takes to create a healthy society. Rather, embrace the fact that you’re disagreeing with them is okay — and their disagreeing with you is okay, too.

You may not change the entire world by doing so. You may not change your country, or even your city. But it is certain that you can make an impact in the small circles you travel in by engaging in principled, respectful, and fair disagreement — and by not freaking out when others disagree with you. And who knows? If enough of us do that, maybe we will move the country onto a better road, a road that doesn’t end with the kind of polarization that truly is past the point of no return.

Dr. Lucian (Luke) Gideon Conway III is a Professor of Psychology and a Fellow with the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College. He is the author of over 85 articles, commentaries, and book chapters on the psychology of politics and culture. Dr. Conway’s research has been featured in major media outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, USA Today, the Ben Shapiro Podcast, and BBC Radio. Further, he has written opinion pieces for outlets such as The Hill, Heterodox Academy, and London School of Economics U.S. Centre. He is the author of the book Complex Simplicity: How Psychology Suggests Atheists are Wrong About Christianity. You can follow him on twitter @LGConwayIII, on ResearchGate, or on Google Scholar.

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