Talking about politics: When, with whom and to what effect?

When you talk to your spouse or friends, what do you talk about? Talk has political ramifications. According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, human beings tend to disregard most information that contradict our pre-existing attitudes but social cues are the single influence with the potential to elicit a lasting change of mind.

However, although communication with friends and neighbours has the potential of transmitting new information and changing our minds, this potential will not materialize if we only converse with like-minded people. Considering ongoing debates about filter-bubbles and echo-chambers, this seems to be what is happening.

The Campaign Panel of the German Longitudinal Election Study allows shedding some light on the personal communication of ordinary citizens. In nine survey waves, respondents were repeatedly asked about the political conversations they have had in the past week: Whether they had any and with whom. Naturally, these measures are self-reported and therefore imperfect. Having these caveats in mind, here are some basic findings of research in collaboration with Lea Gärtner.

First, individuals differ strongly in whether and how often they talk about politics. Figure 1 shows the distribution of self-reported frequency of political conversations over the past week. Some people never touched upon this issue while a handful of people talked about politics every day.

Figure 1: Frequency of Political Conversations

We also investigated whether citizens only talk with like-minded people. In this case, „like-minded“ is operationalized as talking to a person who the respondent perceives as having the same vote intention. Specifically, we calculated the relative homogeneity of a person’s discussion network where „1“ denotes a respondent’s discussion network is not biased towards her own party. If the respondent intends to vote for CDU and the CDU polls at 30% then the discussion network is unbiased if it consists of 30% CDU voters. However, if 60% of the respondent’s conversation partners intend to vote CDU, then the respondent apparently prefers like-minded conversation partners and the coefficient would be „2“.

Figure 2: The Development of Homogeneity of Discussion Networks across the Election Campaign

Figure 2 provides three fundamental insights. First, citizens do prefer like-minded conversation partners. Regardless of party preference, the average citizen has twice as many conversation partners with identical vote preferences in her discussion network than we would have expected if discussion networks were unbiased. Second, the homogeneity of discussion networks does not increase when the election draws closer. Third, voters of AfD and (surprisingly?) voters of the Green Party have the strongest inclination to talk to like-minded people.

Finally, we should note that while we observe a bias towards congeniality, most of the respondents do not live in filter-bubbles. Although people prefer talking with like-minded others, other analyses show that most people also do talk to citizens with other points of view.

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