NOW WE’RE TALKING: Evidence of the impact of a political face-to-face conversation on polarised attitudes

With polarisation being a threat to democratic institutions and the world facing rising animosity between individuals with different political preferences, one question becomes increasingly urgent: what can be done to counteract these disconcerting trends? 

Research by Sven Heuser and Lasse Stötzer tackles this question and finds that under the right conditions, personal face-to-face conversations can be a solution. But if these conditions are not met, the situation might deteriorate even further. 

If a lack of social interaction with contrary-minded individuals is a main cause for polarisation and increasing animosity between political camps, enhancing opportunities for communication should help to counteract this trend.

The authors elaborate this idea by leveraging Deutschland Spricht, a large-scale intervention in Germany with the objective of bringing two individuals together to engage in a private face-to-face conversation about politics. The researchers complemented the programme in 2018 by sending out two surveys to the more than 19,000 registered participants.

The study examines two distinct but related sets of outcome measures:

  • On the one hand, it investigates whether a face-to-face conversation can lead to ‘social convergence’ by looking at stereotypes about individuals with opposing political views and perceived social cohesion measured by trust in and care about fellow German citizens.
  • On the other hand, it explores whether an adaption and convergence of attitudes can be achieved.


Throughout the study, a consistent pattern pervades the results with the effects of the conversation depending on the composition of the pair: The direction and the size of the effects differ on whether two contrary-minded, i.e. individuals with opposing political views, or two like-minded, i.e. individuals with similar political views, persons met.

A meeting between two politically contrary-minded individuals led to social convergence: stereotypes about individuals with opposing political views were reduced and social cohesion was improved. But the conversation did not lead to a convergence nor an adaption of the attitudes. 

In contrast, if two like-minded individuals met, neither stereotypes about contrary-minded individuals were reduced nor were the social cohesion measures affected. Instead, individuals changed their attitudes and became more extreme in their views. Importantly, this implies that on a societal level attitudes move further apart leading to more polarisation. 

The study suggests clear policy advice. Social interactions should be promoted – but only between members of different political camps. In this case, desirable social effects can be expected, even though no convergence of attitudes.

At the same time, the study reveals the threat if people stay among like-minded. Opinions can become more extreme over time leading to (even more) polarisation of attitudes within the society while there is no reduction of stereotypes or improvement of social cohesion. 



Sven Heuser