How much influence your friends’ opinions can have on your own political views

Image: iStock / gorodenkoff
This article has been sponsored by Monash Business School.

A recent study posed an interesting question: can the friends you surround yourself with have a direct impact on your political views? The short answer is yes, the long answer is a touch more complex.

While the average person is known to gravitate towards like-minded people who share similar interests, there are those rogue friends whose opinions deviate from your own — often it can be minor differences, occasionally it can be polar opposites.

Conducted by dozens of students at Monash University, the natural experiment divided classes into groups of 20 and monitored how they interacted, what their original political stances were and how those views changed in the span of the initial week as well as the next six months.

Dubbed the ‘friendship effect’, the study investigated students’ shift in opinion after forming friendships with other students in the first week, and subsequently each week since being introduced. Interestingly, the study found that while existing friends usually gravitated towards one another based on interests outside of politics, the friendship can assist in individuals avoiding extremist views.

“The lack of result on convergence shows that friendship does not necessarily create echo chambers or filter bubbles, in terms of compressing the diversity of opinions,” the study found. “Yet the strong effect of discouragement on divergence suggests that friends do keep each other from deviating away to the extremes.”

“When students who are similar on the dimension of political opinions become friends, they continue to interact on related topics, as shown by their decisions to participate in the same politically-inclined associations (and not other types of associations). Such continual interactions, as enforced by homophily, are the factor that produces the strong effect of friendship among students with high similarity in political opinions while friendship leads friends to further exposure within an association, in this context it only does so for politically-motivated associations.”

So although it’s likely friends will gravitate towards those who will, in some manner, reinforce their political views, the study doesn’t suggest it creates an echo chamber nor does it rule out students with differing political views maintaining a friendship.

Professor Yves Zenu from Monash University’s Department of Economics puts it simply: “Your friends’ political opinions have a direct impact on your views.

“This also extends to friends of friends, though to a lesser extent, and then it stops.”

In light of recent political movements, various think-pieces have popped up across the internet pondering the question, ‘Should we remain friends with people who have different political views to us?‘.

The overwhelming conclusion was a resounding yes, with scholars suggesting that for the most part, society is engrained with the desire for peaceful coexisting. Again, for the most part.

Author Hugh Mackay told SBS, “The deepest truth about us is that we belong to a social species that calls on us to promote social harmony,” he says. “And we can do that even while we disagree violently and irrevocably with each other about all sorts of things. Diversity, difference, contrasts – these enrich a community as long as we deal with them in a spirit of compassion true to our nature as human beings.”

The complexities of the ‘friendship effect’ run much deeper, but it can be boiled down to the fact that people will usually somewhat compromise in order to achieve (and maintain) friendships; friendships can alter a person’s political view to an extent, or at the very least, prevent them from holding extremist views; and people can remain friends with those who hold different political views, occasionally.

To get a broader understanding of this and everything else you’ll come across when entering uni and the workforce, you can read into courses and more information over at Monash Business School. MBUS will fine-tune your skills and future-proof you for whatever field you go into — surrounding yourself with scholars and professionals in their field will rub off on you in one way or another, which future employers will look upon fondly.