New research has uncovered differences between how conservatives and liberals interpret indirect remarks. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, provides evidence that people who are more politically liberal in the United States are more likely to endorse indirect meanings of conversational utterances.
“We have been investigating miscommunication and began to think about how people may differ in their interpretation of conversation remarks, differences that then could result in miscommunication,” said study author Thomas Holtgraves, a professor of psychological science at Ball State University.
“Inspired by a critical issue in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial (his ‘I’d like you to do us a favor, though’ statement to the president of Ukraine), we examined whether liberals and conservatives would differ in their interpretation of conversation remarks. And they did.”
For their study, the researchers used an online platform known as Prolific to recruit a sample of 700 U.S adults.
The participants read a brief transcript of a conversation between two business executives. The conversation consisted of 21 total utterances, including five indirect utterances. For example, during the conversation one of the executives asked “I’m also wondering, what are your thoughts about interest rates? Do you think they’ll be raised anytime soon?” to which the other executive offered the indirect response “Well, some people think they’ll be raised soon.”
The exchange was presented one utterance at a time on a computer screen. The participants pressed the spacebar to move on to the next utterance. “For seven utterances (five targets and two fillers), participants, immediately after pressing the spacebar, were presented with an interpretation of the utterance and asked to provide their judgment of the likelihood of that interpretation,” the researchers explained.
Liberal participants were more likely to endorse indirect interpretations compared to their conservative counterparts. But there was no difference between liberals and conservatives in the interpretation of the control (filler) utterances. This was true even after accounting for factors such as emotional intelligence, education level, and social class.
“People differ in terms of the how they interpret conversations,” Holtgraves told PsyPost. “In our research, we have identified one variable – political orientation – that is associated with such differences.”
He added that the researchers stumbled upon the findings by accident. “The finding itself surprised us because we were not looking for it,” Holtgraves explained. “We were examining how people interpret utterances like ‘I’d like you to do us a favor though’ and we happened to notice that there was a difference between liberals and conservatives, which we then decided to pursue in detail.”
Previous research has indicated that liberals tend to score higher on measures of cognitive flexibility and empathy. But neither of these factors helped to explain the differences in interpretation between liberals and conservatives. “We are continuing to explore possible mediators of this effect,” Holtgraves said.
The study, “US liberals and conservatives live in different (linguistic) worlds: Ideological differences when interpreting business conversations“, was authored by Thomas Holtgraves and Ky Bray.