Why Some People Won’t Compromise on Important Issues
President Obama, like most former presidents, tends to keep a low profile. But he chose to break his silence a few months back when he told a crowd, “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff—you should get over that quickly.” If you found yourself thinking “what a sellout,” it probably says something about how much of an absolutist you are. And, it also probably says something about how you approach politics.
Absolutism is a personality trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some people are high in absolutism, some people are low on it, and most people fall in between. On the high end of the absolutism continuum are idealist folks who believe that their moral principles should be upheld in every situation. On the low end, we find the “contextualists”—people who are moral relativists who judge whether actions are right or wrong based on their consequences. Because political debates often revolve around what is morally right or wrong, the degree to which people are absolutist affects how much they are willing to compromise and how tolerant they are of people who disagree with them.
To understand the difference between the two ends of the absolutism continuum, imagine a horrible scene. It’s World War II and group of 10 villagers in the French countryside are hiding from German soldiers who have orders to kill everyone on sight. The villagers have found a secluded place in a deserted farmhouse, but just as German soldiers walk up the driveway, a baby in the group begins to cry inconsolably. Sadly, the only way to avoid being discovered and killed is for the parent to cover the child’s mouth and suffocate the child to death.
As tragic as this situation is, what is the “right” thing to do from a moral perspective? An absolutist would probably say that it is wrong to kill the child and this principle is something worth dying for. A contextualist would likely agree that, as a general principle, it is wrong to kill, but that in this specific instance, saving the life of one person necessarily means the death of 10 people, including the child. So, the contextualist would probably make the tradeoff: the child’s death in return for saving nine other people.
What does this gut-wrenching decision have to do with politics? To find out, I conducted a survey of over 1,200 Americans from very diverse backgrounds. I measured the degree to which these people were absolutists by asking them how much they agreed with 20 statements, developed by social psychologist Donelson Forsyth, such as “Risks to another should never be tolerated, irrespective of how small the risks might be” (a statement that reflects high absolutism) and “What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another” (which reflects low absolutism).
Next, I asked the research participants questions that measured how much they tolerate people with whom they disagree on several issues that ranged from hot button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, to economic ones, like banking regulations. I found that people who were higher in absolutism were more likely to deny freedom of speech to people who disagreed with them than people lower in absolutism.
I then ran a little experiment. The participants in this study read a series of vignettes about proposals in Congress involving abortion, gun rights, immigration, and taxes. Based on their responses to questions at the beginning of the survey, I described all of the proposals in a way that was contrary to each participant’s opinions on these issues. Half of the participants read vignettes in which they asked to imagine that their representative in Congress worked with legislators on both sides of the issues to find a compromise, while the other half were asked to imagine that their representative worked with like-minded legislators to try to stop the bill.
Participants who were higher in absolutism said that they were more likely to vote for their representative in the next election if their representative didn’t compromise on the specific issue in question. But, if they read the vignette in which their representative compromised, participants higher in absolutism were less likely to vote for their representative.
Although these findings are based on hypothetical situations, they offer some insight into what’s going on in politics these days. Across Western democracies, we see tensions between absolutists on both the left and the right who see compromise as a dirty word and contextualists who would prefer a half of a loaf than no loaf at all. To the absolutists, doing anything other than their preferred policy proposal is evidence of being morally suspect, while the contextualists extol the virtues of working out differences through compromise.
Most of us fall in between these two extremes. And, it’s usually these in-between folks who decide whether the absolutists or the conextualists get the reins of power.
For Further Reading
Arceneaux, Kevin. 2019. “The roots of intolerance and opposition to compromise: The effects of absolutism on political attitudes.” Personality and Individual Differences, 151: 109498
Forsyth, Donelson R. 1980. “A taxonomy of ethical ideologies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39 (1): 175-84.
Kevin (Vin) Arceneaux is the Thomas J. Freaney Jr. Professor of Political Science at Temple University and the Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab. He studies how psychological biases shape political judgments.