Morality and “moral” politics seem to be in the news lately. I came upon an article in the Science and Technology section of The Economist (June 22, 2017 edition) discussing “political morality”. Noting that this may be an oxymoron, the article discusses studies showing that politicians who take a position and then change their minds may well hurt their careers.

Especially over the last year, we have all heard various politicians state that their belief in such and such is morally based (“the Moral Majority”? the Evangelicals?) rather than pragmatically so. And research has shown that those who do this, are better at gaining voters. However, Tamar Kreps at the University of Utah and her colleagues conducted experiments showing that those politicians who base their policies on morality rather than pragmatism will pay a hefty price if they later change their minds. (Id.)

To reach this conclusion, she and her colleagues conducted 15 separate experiments. They tested three ideas. The first was whether “…a leader who had changed his mind after adopting a moral position would seem more hypothetical and less effective, than one who had justified his initial positions on purely pragmatic grounds.” (Id.) The data indicated this to be the case: the politician was considered hypocritical.

The second idea tested was the converse: “… perhaps changing one’s mind in such circumstances would be morally courageous, and therefore boost support among the public.” (Id.) The data results produced no evidence to support this idea.

The third idea tested was “… whether ratings depended on a participant’s own beliefs. A leader coming around to one’s own view might be viewed with more indulgence than one who had travelled in the opposite direction.” (Id.) The data provided only very slight evidence for this hypothesis.

The results of the study indicated two ways that a politician may escape the wrath of the voter when changing her mind on a moral issue. The first is to attribute the change to a “personal experience” such as spending time on skid row and seeing firsthand how badly our homeless are being treated. (Id.) The second is to simply deny that one has changed her opinion, and any change if it has occurred is due to factors beyond one’s control. (e.g., The other political party refuses to tale a bipartisan approach on this proposed legislation.)

While this article deals with politics, its results are applicable to any sort of conflict and conflict resolution. Because, after all, isn’t politics one of our many conflicts in everyday life? Have we not all dealt with people who have taken one position for moral or other reasons, and then suddenly changed their minds. When that happens, we feel the same way about that person as we would a politician: She is being hypocritical and we do not any longer quite trust her. Consequently, in our attempts to resolve the conflict, we will be very wary and ever vigilant about the terms of any resolution we might agree upon.

In contrast, if a person takes one view, and then suddenly “sees the light” or has the epiphany based on a personal experience, we tend to look more favorably towards that person because she now “understands” us and what we are talking about. About why we are angry or upset or frustrated at the situation because she too has undergone that same experience. Consequently, we now believe that a resolution of the conflict is possible and work towards that with perhaps less skepticism than before.

So… politics and conflict have a lot more in common than we think, and we can use the former to teach us how to resolve the latter.

… Just something to think about.


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