A study to explore how warmly we treat those we disagree with has found that election outcomes can make all the difference. Prior to the 2016 election, Democrats were much nicer to Republicans than the other way around. That changed in the aftermath of Trump's win. The findings might seem to be nothing more than a fun confirmation of what we might expect, but they could have important implications for overcoming entrenched conflicts.
In May 2016 a team from Australian, Italian, and Singaporean universities asked 200 partisan Americans to allocate money between themselves within a group of three people. They didn't know the group members but were told they included either one, two, or three people of the same political affiliation as themselves, with the rest being on the other side of the fence. The test was run again in the fortnight after the November election with the same group, this time with some priming from asking people how the election made them feel.
In May, Democrats were both more generous than Republicans, and less concerned about the affiliations of those they were giving money to. On average Democrats gave away half the money, keeping half for themselves, and this didn't shift significantly based on the group's affiliations.
On the other hand, although Republicans gave slightly more (55 percent) to Republican-only groups than Democrats would give to fellow Democrats, this dropped to just 37 and 36 percent when one or two Democrats respectively were part of the group. Racial aspects of Republicans' hostility were not tested.
Following the election, Republicans were still more inclined than Democrats to keep all the money for themselves, but the political alignment of the group members had only two-thirds the influence on their decisions.
The biggest change was in how Democrats treated groups with two Republicans and a Democrat, now sharing just 38 percent, while groups with two or three Democrats got the same response as in May (50 and 55 percent respectively). Democrats had previously been far less partisan in their allocations than Republicans; now they were slightly more so.
The authors note in PLOS One there was a significant correlation between the Democrats' changed response and lowered self-esteem resulting from the shock election result.
"As subsequent surveys confirm that America remains deeply divided months after the election, the effects we have measured might be longer lasting than anyone might have expected," Professor Celia Moore of Bocconi Univesity said in a statement.
More broadly the results are indicative of something that should be obvious, but we often forget: Collective defeats intensify people's tendency to favor members of their own group over others. Consequently, any winner-takes-all contest makes it harder to build genuine peace between groups in conflict, as those on the losing side become more likely to want revenge.