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IACM 2023

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Conversational Receptiveness Transmits Between Parties and Reduces Affective Polarization

The rise in affective polarization in the United States has alarmed social scientists and citizens. Given the central role of civic dialogue in mitigating this phenomenon, a growing literature has focused on the causes of—and remedies for—people’s inability to have productive discussions across ideological divides. Here, we focus on “conversational receptiveness” – the use of language to behaviorally demonstrate one’s thoughtful engagement with opposing views (1) – and its effect on dialogue. Prior research on conversational receptiveness used natural language processing to identify specific words and phrases recognized as signaling thoughtful engagement. We use a multidisciplinary and multimethod approach (collective N = 4,747) to test whether the use of conversational receptiveness transmits between parties (is “contagious”) and reduces affective polarization. We find that conversational receptiveness enacted by one party predicted receptiveness by the other party among government leaders in the laboratory (Study 1) and students in online class forums (Study 2). In a pre-registered experiment (Study 3), we find that briefly training one individual in this technique also increased its use by an out-party counterpart. This transmission is distinct from mimicry or emotion contagion and is driven by a deeper shift in linguistic style, which we term “indirect accommodation.” As a result of our intervention, conversational receptiveness reduced affective polarization toward both the person offering receptiveness and their political party. Together, these studies show that conversational receptiveness is an effective tool for both shifting behavior during a focal conflict, as well as shifting subsequent attitudes.

Hanne Collins
Harvard Business School, Harvard University
United States


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