Students

Understanding "The Other Side"

Posted
May 2, 2022
two silhouettes of people disagreeing

Dyson College 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. Yet over the past several years, she couldn’t help but notice that politics was increasingly becoming personal.

She also noticed a dearth of research in this domain—whereas there is considerable work done about how members of different political affiliations feel about one another, it didn’t necessarily go deeper.

“There’s been a lot of research about how Democrats feel about Republicans and vice-versa, but less work looking at what this looks like in the context of family relationships, or friendships,” notes Gosnell.

In the fall of 2019, Gosnell was awarded a grant that enabled her to assemble a group of seven undergraduate students to further work on this research—first in a reading-intensive and discussion-based setting that would enable the students to gain a feel of what a graduate school seminar might be like—and later on, through applying discussion to formulating an original research idea.

One of the participating students, Sarahlouise Baldwin ’22, found the discussion sessions extremely intellectually stimulating, adding a layer to her academic experience that, as a biology major, she wouldn’t necessarily experience without this unique research opportunity.

“There’s been a lot of research about how Democrats feel about Republicans and vice-versa, but less work looking at what this looks like in the context of family relationships, or friendships,” notes Gosnell.

“Before we knew what the study was going to be, we were having these meetings discussing current affairs, different things we were seeing in media. Eventually, we started questioning each other and ourselves,” says Baldwin. “Why do some people, and some of us, maintain these relationships when we know we wouldn’t willingly start a relationship with someone else with different views?”

That spring, the group, which included Baldwin, Anjolee Spence ’22, Cassandra McKenna ’20, Connor Wills ’20, Alyssa Monty ’22, Shannon Roberson ’22, and Pace graduate student Syed Hasan formulated their discussions into a research idea that would contribute to the academic literature. With Gosnell’s guidance, the group decided to focus on the concept of gratitude—namely, how gratitude can be a driving force for maintaining close relationships across the ever-widening political divide.

“There's a whole academic literature regarding gratitude—on how gratitude helps us connect to people in our close relationships,” says Gosnell. “We knew from our initial work, people might maintain relationships with family members because ‘it’s my mom, she’s done so much for me.’ Maybe gratitude is this mechanism which allows us to be open and understanding.”

Just as the group was planning on initiating the research, the pandemic hit—thus delaying the study. Yet, the project was able to move forward a few months later thanks to the dedication of Baldwin and Spence, who dedicated hours during the summers of 2020 and 2021 to conducting the research, carrying out analysis and conducting rounds of coding.

As the research became more developed at the end of this past summer, the group began thinking about venues to present their findings. The project, titled “The Influence of Gratitude on Close Relationships with Opposing Political Affiliation” was accepted to the prestigious Posters on the Hill presentation sponsored by the nationally based Council on Undergraduate Research. Baldwin, who is likely the first Pace student to ever present at this conference, shared her findings with congressional leadership and staff when she presented on April 27.

"I was so grateful for the experience. Although it was nerve-racking, I’ve become really comfortable with the research and enjoy talking about it," notes Baldwin. "This was a unique opportunity, and I am glad I was able to do something of this caliber with our work before I graduate."

"This was a unique opportunity, and I am glad I was able to do something of this caliber with our work before I graduate."

Although Baldwin is not looking to go into politics or psychology with her biology degree after Commencement this year, she views this research as an invaluable component of her Pace education, and one that will undoubtedly help her gain greater perspective in both her professional and personal life.

“As someone who is hoping to go into the medical field, I’ve gotten questions before as to why I’m so invested in research in political psychology,” said Baldwin. “I believe that this research is very important and fundamental to understanding our interaction with others, and the way that our own emotions and feelings can influence how and why we interact with people.”

Gosnell hopes that continuing to explore this topic and promoting their teams’ findings could potentially spur applications to help reduce polarization; and at the very least, underscore the complexity of individuals and the necessity of reaching common ground despite political differences.

“Ideally, if we want to come together and not be so polarized as a country, it takes a little bit of understanding of different perspectives. It’s hard to do that when you feel like it’s my group vs. another group, but easier when you have, say, a cousin or a parent who has these different views,” notes Gosnell. “If I maintain this type of relationship it doesn’t mean I’m going to adapt their views, but it gives us a better understanding, promotes discussion, and makes it less of an us vs. them situation.”

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