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There has been a lot of talk of bubbles over the past year. I don’t mean the pandemic kind but rather being stuck in an echo chamber, hearing from people with similar values and perspectives on life. It’s a concept with which we’ve become pretty familiar, especially in the US, which just went through one of the most divisive presidential elections in its history. The media that we trust, the social media feeds we follow and our own social circles have all become more insulated.

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It’s a separation that, on some measures, has become starker than racial divisions in the US. One African-American conservative at a political event in 2018 told me that she felt accepted “for my gender and for the colour of my skin but not for the content of my mind”. Perhaps the best example of what she’s talking about is to look at marriage. In the past few decades, Americans have become increasingly comfortable with interracial and gay marriage but less so with marrying someone of a different political viewpoint. Only 4 per cent of marriages listed last year were between people of opposite political affiliations, according to the American Family Survey – that’s less than half the number of interracial marriages.

This is reflected in our attitudes too. Many of us are pretty open about our political prejudices these days: a survey by Gallup found that 55 per cent of Americans would rather their child married someone of the same political affiliation, compared with 28 per cent in 1958. By contrast, about 87 per cent now say t hat they wouldn’t care if their child married someone of a different race; up from 4 per cent in 1958. Gay marriage is now approved of by 67 per cent of Americans.

So what should we do about it? The answer doesn’t merely lie in talking or listening to people with a different mindset: it’s about how you listen. We’ve all had heated arguments with political opposites in which we leave angrier and more convinced of our opinion than when we started. That’s because our bubble mentality is about what we do with other views and information when we get it. Our minds work harder to disprove something we don’t agree with than something we’re inclined to believe. Consider it a defence mechanism, because getting out of your comfort zone and listening to others – opening up your political and moral beliefs to be challenged – is difficult.

There’s plenty of research on this: one study in the US, around the 2004 presidential election, measured people’s reactions to evidence that their preferred candidate said something verifiably untrue or contradictory. They then offered a way to explain away the candidate’s contradictory statement and monitored the relief that people felt as it turned out that the horse they had backed wasn’t a disappointment after all. The study, led by political scientist Drew Westen, was an examination of “motivated reasoning” and it shows why our political beliefs are so hard to shake.We want our side to win; it brings us comfort.

Americans have become increasingly comfortable with interracial and gay marriage but less so with marrying someone of a different political viewpoint

Like any addiction, challenging it begins with acceptance. “Start by recognising that your mind is divided, like a small rider (our conscious reasoning) on top of a gigantic elephant (automatic thought processes, including our emotions). Deep learning happens when both rider and elephant are changed, so seek experiences that will speak to the elephant, as well as the rider,” says Jonathan Haidt of the New York University Stern School of Business, who is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. What kind of experiences? Haidt suggests “a friendly interaction with a person on the ‘other side’”. “Don’t talk about politics at first,” he says. “But once common ground is found, you can ask questions to find out what the other person believes – and why.”

Common ground is key: it helps to build trust. We’re only going to amend our political views if they come from someone we consider trustworthy. Reaching out also involves accepting that the person you’re speaking to might have a different set of values to you; ones you might perceive as offensive. That’s OK: our diversity of ideas makes us strong. 

Monocle comment: Free speech is a core Western value but its meaning has become lost. Let’s resolve to listen more deeply and discuss our differences – even when they cause offence.

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