By Yvonne Milosevic
There are so many hot-button issues facing the world today. From abortion to gun control, mask mandates to immigration, it’s tempting to limit conversations to small talk about the weather. Except that climate change is yet another controversial subject. So really, the only safe topics are dogs and life hacks from TikTok. But now we’re learning that having a neutral stance on touchy matters can backfire big time.
According to research in Kellogg Insight, staying out of political discussions can make others think you’re untrustworthy. In a new paper, Ike Silver, an incoming assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, and Alex Shaw of the University of Chicago wanted to test the “Taylor Swift effect” against a larger pool of people. (You may recall the media dealt Swift a fierce flogging after she refused to reveal her political leanings in 2016).
No one buys your neutral stance.
For one study, the researchers divided participants into two groups to watch a clip of the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs responding to a reporter’s question about players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. The owner replies, “We aren’t doing anything on that today. … There’s really nothing to talk about.”
They told one group that the audience for the press conference was primarily conservative. The other group heard that the audience was mostly liberal. Participants also rated what they thought the team owner really believed and shared their own thoughts on the issue, too.
In the end, the groups came to differing conclusions about the owner’s beliefs based on the type of audience involved. Participants told about a conservative viewership believed the owner supported the protest. But, he didn’t say so to avoid alienating the audience. The second group thought he was against kneeling but didn’t reveal his opinion for the same reason.
“What we found is that although everyone saw the exact same video, they made opposing inferences about what the team owner believed” based on what they knew about the audience, Silver says.
Also, participants found this conscious avoidance of disagreement less trustworthy than outright opposition. “Many participants, whether they were on the right or the left, said they’d trust him more if he just came out and disagreed with them,” Silver notes.
Not knowing is the worst.
Silver and Shaw ran 11 experiments to study how “staying out of it” affected people’s perceptions of others. The results across all their tests pointed to the same conclusion. Declining to take a position on social and political issues inspires mistrust.
“People tend to interpret attempts to ‘stay out of it’ as strategic concealment for some self-interested reason,” Silver explains.
“They assume if someone is saying, ‘I’d really rather not get into this,’ what they believe deep down probably contradicts what their audience believes.” Moreover, the fact that they are unwilling to speak their mind comes across as “inauthentic,” he says.
The bottom line from these experiments is that people appreciate knowing where you stand, even if they disagree with you. Sure, sharing your views on hot-button issues may feel uncomfortable. But your supposedly neutral stance is not fooling anyone.
“Shutting these kinds of discussions down does more to harm interpersonal trust than people expect,” Silver notes. “Engagement in respectful political discussion, relative to avoiding the conversation at all costs, may be a safer and savvier interpersonal strategy than people realize.”