New Research Spotlight: How to solve political conflicts when conspiracy theories are tied to social identity

June 02, 2022

Graham WrightA new study published in the Journal of Deliberative Democracy by a Heller researcher examines the effectiveness of deliberation as a method of problem solving and democratic decision making. Graham Wright, MPP’15, PhD’16, lecturer at Heller and an associate research scientist at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, shows how conflicts that have deep connections to social identity can be difficult to resolve through a deliberative approach based on persuasion. Conflicts related to partisan polarization, conspiracy theories and the COVID-19 pandemic are all closely tied up with social identities, which can inhibit the ability of any argument to induce belief change. Wright argues that using a deliberative approach based on co-creation may be more productive in developing solutions.

Tell us about your findings. How does social identity play a role in how people deliberate and resolve conflicts?

Our sense of self-esteem is deeply connected to the social groups we identify with: “I’m a good person because the groups I identify with are good.” Because our self-esteem is connected to our “social identity” in this way, when we encounter information that threatens this identity, our brains deploy cognitive biases to defend ourselves from the threat. That process happens totally unconsciously, and it happens to everyone. And right now, partisanship is more connected to social identity than ever before. Research tells us that the biggest division between liberals and conservatives right now isn’t so much policy disagreements but a sense that “our side” is good and the “other side” is evil.

This is actually a big problem for democracy. Lots of people argue that what makes a society truly democratic isn’t just making decisions by voting, but robust public deliberation between citizens. Most democratic theorists have seen this sort of deliberation as being primarily about persuasion, but my argument is that when politics is deeply connected to identity, persuasion may not be strong enough to overcome biases and support democracy.

What is “co-creation,” and how can it be a more effective approach?

Co-creation is the basis of what the philosopher Mary Parker Follett calls an “integrative” approach to conflict resolution. In an integrative dialogue, opponents aren’t trying to persuade each other to change their minds, but are working together to try to find a new solution that addresses whatever underlying desires are driving the conflict.

How do these approaches compare on contemporary issues, such as conflicts between vaccine advocates and members of the “vaccine hesitancy and refusal” community?

Even before COVID, there was a lot of research looking at what leads people to the vaccine hesitancy and refusal (VHR) movement. This work tells us that skepticism of vaccines is not due to lack of knowledge, but a powerful sense of identity based around keeping children safe and distrust of Western medicine.

Trying to resolve debates about vaccination by persuasion would involve each side trying to prove the other wrong. But for VHR parents to admit that they're wrong, they would need to reject their entire identity and admit that they have been putting their kids' health at risk, and this is unlikely to happen. 

A co-creative approach would involve asking what vaccine advocates and skeptics really want. Vaccine advocates want to develop herd immunity. VHR parents are not opposed to vaccines per se, they just want to keep their kids safe. So vaccine developers could ask VHR parents to work with them on a new version of the vaccine that was safer from the VHR perspective, while still being effective from the perspective of Western science. Being involved in the process could give VHR parents an incentive to take the vaccine they helped to develop. Both sides would get what they want without anyone needing to admit they were wrong, but over time VHR individuals might gradually, on their own terms, reevaluate their views about the scientific process, having seen it up close.

How can this research have an impact on policy?

Even though this research on vaccines was all pre-COVID, this issue has clearly become more relevant as vaccines have become tied up with political social identity. The integrative approach would recommend shifting the debate from liberals and conservatives each saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” to, “How can we work together to each get what we want?”

This same thinking might be helpful in conflicts regarding race and racism, which are also deeply connected to social and political identity. It’s really unlikely that people on either side of these debates are going to admit that they’re wrong in the face of counter-arguments, because their beliefs are so ingrained in their sense of self. An integrative approach may be the only democratic way to achieve real progress on racial justice, given the state of things right now.