Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 03, 2019

When Do We Trust People We Disagree With?

by Julian Zlatev
Woman with one hand showing thumbs up and the other hand showing thumbs down

The presidential election of 1800 was an important moment in U.S. history. Under election laws at the time, the candidate with the highest number of electoral votes became President, while the candidate with the second-highest became Vice President. As it turns out, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for first place, so it fell to the House of Representatives to break the tie.

But Jefferson and Burr were both from the same political party, leaving members of the opposing party, like Alexander Hamilton, in the unenviable position of having to decide which of their opponents to support. At the time, Hamilton wrote a letter to a colleague expressing his thoughts about the difficult choice he had to make. In this letter, he listed a number of grievances about Jefferson, including that “his politics are tinctured with fanaticism [and] he is too much earnest in his democracy.” However, he also provided some praise for Jefferson, writing “there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted.”

Hamilton’s criticism of Jefferson’s opponent, Burr, was of a different note. “He has no fixed theory,” Hamilton wrote, asking whether such a person could make a good leader. “I believe not,” he concluded. “No general principles will hardly work much better than erroneous ones.”

Hamilton eventually backed Jefferson, who went on to win the presidency.

This anecdote, which was immortalized centuries later in the hit musical Hamilton, reveals something compelling about human behavior. In a series of studies, I put Hamilton’s claim—that “erroneous” principles are preferred over no principles—to the test. In particular, I was interested in examining how someone’s thoughts about socially and politically important issues affect how much we trust him or her. To do so, I presented participants with information concerning how another person felt about a highly polarized topic, such as gun control or abortion. Participants then rated how trustworthy they thought that person was.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these studies found that we trust other people more when we agree with them on an issue than when we disagree with them. Less obviously, however, these studies also found that we trust other people more when they care more about these issues, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with their stance on the issue. What this means is that, like Hamilton during the 1800 election, we are more likely to trust others who hold a principled stance, even when we view their stance as wrong.

Why do we trust opponents who care more about an issue? What it seems to come down to is that we perceive people without a principled stance to be lower in integrity, so we assume they are less likely to behave ethically by, for example, telling the truth or returning money they owe. This is consistent with other research showing that people are less supportive of politicians who flip-flop on issues such as same-sex marriage and the death penalty. Even people who agreed with the politician’s new view supported flip-floppers less. There is just something distasteful about people who don’t consistently stand up for what they believe that transcends political lines.

Although my research participants thought that people who cared more about an issue were higher in integrity, there was an important caveat to this result. Namely, while people trusted these principled opponents more, they liked them less. This suggests that, although you may be confident that a passionate opponent would give you back your money, you may not want to grab coffee and have a chat with that person. So, this research suggests that we would trust people across the political divide more if we saw them as more principled. But that doesn't mean that we'll be holding hands and singing kumbaya anytime soon.

For Further Reading:

Kreps, T. A., Laurin, K., & Merritt, A. C. (2017). Hypocritical flip-flop, or courageous evolution? When leaders change their moral minds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(5), 730.

Zlatev, J. J. (2019). I may not agree with you, but I trust you: Caring about social issues signals integrity. Psychological Science30(6), 880-892.

Julian Zlatev is an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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