Research: The Politics of Relationships
Dyson Assistant Professor Courtney Gosnell, PhD, and Cassandra McKenna ’20 have been researching the factors that help or hurt individuals maintain close relationships with family or friends whose political views differ from their own.
Dyson Assistant Professor of Psychology Courtney Gosnell, PhD, has long been interested in the interpersonal nuances of relationships. Much of her research has been focused on exploring what allows relationships to thrive and prosper, and how individual goals can positively or negatively impact relationships. And while none of her previous research has focused on politics, she couldn’t help but see how over the past several years, politics was increasingly becoming personal.
“I haven’t done a lot of work in politics,” said Gosnell, “but given what’s going on in politics, and watching the news, you hear a lot about how the country is becoming more divided. And there’s been a lot of interpersonal issues that you hear about in the news now—where friendships or romantic relationships are being strained or dissolving over political differences."
Intrigued by this sentiment—that given the currently high state of political polarization, diverging political viewpoints are arguably increasingly affecting relationships between family and close friends—Gosnell began delving into what research has been conducted regarding the topic.
While she found a lot of prior literature on general attitudes regarding those with different political viewpoints, she didn’t find a lot of pre-existing work that dealt with the issue in the context of ongoing close relationships.
“If we have a friend or family member that we’re close to, and they have (or develop) really different political views than ourselves,” said Gosnell, “how are we able to maintain that relationship? Or what factors may make us unlikely to be able to maintain that relationship?”
Like any curious and effective researcher, Gosnell got to work. For this project, she enlisted the help of undergraduate psychology major Cassandra McKenna ’20, who teamed up with Gosnell as part of the Office for Student Success’ Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research program. McKenna aided in developing a questionnaire that was given to individuals from across the United States and the duo began to analyze the data.
Analyzing results, Gosnell and McKenna found—perhaps unsurprisingly—that one of the key determinants of being able to maintain harmonious relationships with individuals across party lines was early exposure. Individuals who had grown up in families or environments in which those around them had differing viewpoints were more likely to maintain effective relationships across party lines as compared to individuals who grew up around a more homogenous political worldview. In addition, they found that certain personality traits (such as openness to new experiences and extraversion) predicted individuals having more cross-party close relationships. Whereas individuals who reported having one or more relationships that had dissolved over politics tended to report lower self-control, lower conscientiousness, and lower agreeableness.
They also began to notice the prevalence—or lack thereof—of gratitude when individuals were describing why they did or did not maintain their relationships.
“For a lot of people who maintain relationships, gratitude toward family is a major recurring theme,”
“If I have a family member who has done a lot for me and I feel a lot of gratitude toward them, I might be able to maintain that relationship even if I think they’re political ideas are crazy or totally different from my own because I feel that gratitude toward them as a person,” said Gosnell. “Whereas in other relationships where we don’t have that experience of gratitude, those might be the ones that are at risk.”
Gosnell, along with McKenna and a team of other Pace students are now looking at this idea more intently—exploring the ways in which gratitude may buffer cross-party close relationships from dissolving or may promote greater tolerance for opposing viewpoints.
While the work is certainly ongoing, Gosnell and McKenna are making considerable strides in adding to the academic literature surrounding a phenomenon that, at least for the foreseeable future, appears to be the reality that many ongoing relationships will be required to navigate.
“There’s a lot of work in psychology in general that shows it’s good for us to have relationships with people from other groups—it helps us to be more open,” said Gosnell. “If we’re worried about our society becoming increasingly more polarized, understanding more about the practical things we could do to help people be able to navigate cross-party relationships is an important avenue for future work.”
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