Who Talks Politics?

Using data from a nationally representative survey of registered voters conducted around the 2008 U.S. presidential election … [we find that] people discussed politics as frequently as (or more frequently than) other topics such as family, work, sports, and entertainment with frequent discussion partners. … The frequency with which a topic is discussed is strongly and positively associated with reported agreement on that topic among these same discussion partners, … because people avoid discussing politics when they anticipate disagreement. (more)

Political talk is quite different within vs. outside of families. Within families, politics talkers tend to be less conscientious, more emotionally stability, and more extraverted. Extraverted family members tend to talk politics more even when they disagree.

Outside of families, people tend to talk politics more when they see each other a few times week, as opposed to daily or weekly. The only other predictor of non-family talk is having an open personality type, and then only when political agreement is especially strong. Controlling for the above features, gender, race, age, education, and other personality factors (like agreeableness) did not predict who talked politics, neither in nor out of families.

So the main situation in which people somewhat talk through their political disagreements is extraverts within families, especially when extraverts are related (think Archie Bunker and meathead). At the other extreme, love fests of political agreement happen most when those with open personalities (who tend politically left) see each other outside of families a few times a week (think faculty lunches). Both of these extreme results fit my personal experience.

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  • Gulliver

    As a sub-question, when and under what circumstances do the minority of people who readily talk politics with those they disagree with regardless of family relationship do so? Also, how can one objectively measure emotional stability? I prefer to talk politics with people I disagree with. I find it hard to believe I’m all that unique within the general populace.

    • John

      I’m also curious about this. Did they look only at face-to-face interaction? Personally I discuss politics constantly online and pretty rarely in person. And my in-person discussions pretty closely track their findings, while my online interactions are almost always with people I disagree with. This might be a common pattern, although my personal experience doesn’t really suggest that.

      If it’s not common, it’s probably because I don’t really “get” how strongly people believe in their political beliefs–I feel no comparable confidence in a set of beliefs, just in certain limited facts. So I can argue forcefully that “capital gains taxes are logically equivalent to taxes on saving” but, if and when that point is conceded, I often have no larger point to make within the political narrative. This manages to be both offensive and boring to many people, so my pool of discussion/debate partners can only be found online. Does this fit anyone else’s experience?

      I admit I’m mostly just curious to test my hunch that Overcoming Bias is a mecca for people with this set of meta-political beliefs.

      • Gulliver

        I certainly can’t speak for anyone else. But in real life, if I encounter someone who I find I agree with, I’ll scan through different topics until I find a point of disagreement and then focus on that. Online the scanning is just more literal. In either context, there’s no profit in powwowing about how much we all agree. The goal of conversation, online or offline, is to extract useful information. If I already have it, I don’t need to extract it.

      • fburnaby

        I’ve almost entirely stopped discussing politics within the last few years. This hasn’t been an explicit decision, but I suspect that it’s a result of the memeplex I’ve obtained from LW & OB and reading philosophy and studying an M.Sc.

        It’s now difficult have a political conversation without wanting to stop and try to operationalize the claims under discussion. This does generally seem to bore people.

  • So doesn’t this provide support for the idea that signalling behaviour decreases within intimate spheres?

    • Only if you think people can’t signal via disagreement.

      • People can certainly signal via disagreement. But what would the signalling be? And what is the utility of it?

        In the case of non-intimate agreement – presumably the signalling aims to demonstrate a a desire for group cohesion. And this has a high degree of utility – since getting along has many advantages.

        If agreement in the non-intimate sphere signals a desire for group cohesion – and if signalling is still going on in the intimate sphere – presumably it’s parsimonious to assume that disagreement signals a desire for a lack of cohesion (or a willingness to be seen as separate from the group)? (This amounts to a kind of compositionality thesis for signalling).

        But what is the utility of this? I don’t see it.

        Instead, can’t we make the case that within intimate spheres, people are able to dispense with signalling procedures so that they can more effectively exchange information about what they think the truth of the matter is? This to me provides a neat explanation of where the utility of disagreement between intimates comes from. They are more willing to disagree when they see the truth differently – and this disagreement promotes a more critical and robust understanding of what is actually true.

    • John

      If there are different types of signals, it’s possible that they have different relationships with intimacy.

      For example, non-intimate political disagreement could be aggressive posturing (“my tribe should rule”) whereas, within intimate spheres, disagreement is more about expressing the signals embedded in our beliefs. Telling a disagreeing stranger that we should soak the rich is aggressive. Telling my disagreeing sister shows my intelligence and compassion for the poor. After all, within intimate spheres, close ties could make aggressive signals less threatening without decreasing the utility of non-aggressive signals–changing our behavior, but not because we are signaling less overall.