Research finds you're probably trying to influence people completely the wrong way

(Photo by Peter Schatz/Getty Images)
  • The latest research shows we should be wary of assuming that our followers are thoughtful and caring.
  • We tend to think those from the same political party can be influenced by persuasion.
  • But those on the opposite side of political need to be coerced to shift their views.

In a world of increasing political polarisation, the question you should ask yourself is: Are you a sheep or a lion?

If you think people who follow the same political party as you are intelligent and hardworking while those who follow the opposition party are ignorant and brainwashed, you’re not alone.

Research led by Nik Steffens, at the University of Queensland School of Psychology, found that people see followers of groups they identify with as dedicated lions and those of groups they don’t identify with as conformist sheep.

“There were striking differences in how people in the US characterised supporters of the same party — that is, Democrats or Republicans — and how they regarded supporters of the other party,” says Dr Steffens.

“People described ingroup followers as lions, wolves, tigers, and dolphins; while outgroup followers were seen as sheep, snakes, hyenas, and lemmings.

“These differences were also seen in the attributes people ascribed, regarding followers of their own group as loyal, dedicated, hardworking, intelligent, and caring, but followers of other groups as brainwashed, ignorant, hateful, racist, and religious.”

Dr Steffens says these views lead people to believe in particular ways to influence people to convince them of an idea or to change their behaviour.

“When dealing with ingroup lions and tigers people thought that they were best influenced by persuasion; when dealing with outgroup sheep and snakes they thought they were best influenced by coercion,” he says.

“This explains a lot when it comes to understanding how some world leaders treat outgroup members: they often don’t try to persuade them but think the best thing is to bully them into submission.

“We live in an age of increasing polarisation and fraction with bitter conflicts between opposing groups, whether this is in the case of Trump, Brexit, One Nation, or other extremist or populist movements.

“These results remind us that we should be wary of assuming that our followers are thoughtful and caring but their followers are brainwashed and hateful — not least because from their perspective the opposite is likely to be true.”

The study, in collaboration with UQ researchers Professors Alex Haslam and Jolanda Jetten and Dr Frank Mols, is published in journal Political Psychology.

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