posted January 26, 2006

Research Seeks Commonalities in Disagreement

A Hope College professor is co-author of research that suggests a way of reducing hostility between opponents who seem to be separated by an unbridgeable divide.

"Members of adversarial groups often view their opponents with suspicion, distrust and outright animosity," said Dr. Mary Inman, professor of psychology. "Some Republicans say some Democrats weaken traditional moral values. Some Democrats criticize some Republicans for squelching human rights."

However, Inman said, "Viewing the debate from their adversaries' values may increase perceptions of agreement and perhaps improve intergroup relations."

Inman and her colleagues, John Chambers and Robert Baron at the University of Iowa, focused on the feud between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates. In research summarized in this month's issue of "Psychological Science," a top-ranking psychology journal, they found that abortion adversaries cherish different values but at the same time wrongly assume that their adversaries are strongly opposed to those values.

"We agree with our enemies more than we think we do," Inman said.

Inman, Chambers and Baron considered two values identified as cherished by each side of the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate, with Pro-Lifers characterized as valuing human life and being morally responsible for one's sexual conduct and Pro-Choicers as valuing a woman's choice to determine her reproductive course and freedom from governmental interference in private matters. In two studies, the three colleagues asked Pro-Choice and Pro-Life advocates the extent to which they, their group and their adversaries agreed with the four values.

In a parallel project, five students in Inman's Social Psychology class at Hope - Megan Fuller, Gabriella Alvarado, Jennifer James, Megan Purtee and Sarah Shaheen--tested the ideas as well. After surveying 40 Hope students, they found identical results.

"Studies with college students and with advocacy organizations showed that people wrongly assumed that their adversaries strongly disagreed with their cherished values," she said. Inman noted that on the values that were less important to the group surveyed - for example, Pro-Lifers' views on governmental interference--the members of that group more accurately estimated their own group's and their adversaries' positions.

Inman believes that the research suggests practical strategies for reducing intergroup hostility.

"For example, Pro-Choicers' beliefs that Pro-Lifers oppose women's rights would be challenged by informing them that Pro-Lifers actually support women's rights," she said. "Harmony could also be achieved if people on both sides of the issue would view the contested issue from their adversaries' underlying values."