But according to new research from Ike Silver, an incoming assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, taking a position of neutrality can come at an unexpected cost. Consider Taylor Swift’s years of silence on political issues. Far from discouraging speculation about the pop star’s views, she avoidance seemed to fuel it. (Swift ended the guessing game by endorsing Democratic candidates in 2018.)
Silver and his co-author Alex Shaw at the University of Chicago were thrilled by the public’s reaction to politically averse figures like Swift. “People seemed to react so strongly to public figures not taking part,” he says. It got him thinking: while there’s an intuitive appeal to stay away from controversial issues in hopes of avoiding conflict, “Could it backfire?”
Turns out, it can. In a new paper, Silver and Shaw found that refusing to take a stand on political and social issues inspires mistrust. The public often views those who take a neutral public position not as fundamental or truly neutral, but rather as calculating and delusional.
“People tend to interpret efforts to ‘stay out of it’ as a strategic concealment for some selfish reason,” explains Silver. “They assume that if someone says, ‘I’d really prefer not to deal with this,’ what they really believe is probably at odds with what their audience believes.” In addition, the fact that they are reluctant to speak their mind is considered “unauthentic”, he says.
In fact, the researchers found, people often feel more wary of vocal fences than opponents. “In our experiments, neutral actors were perceived as dishonest and untrustworthy, even compared to political opponents,” explains Silver.
When “Stay out of it” is a losing move
The researchers conducted 11 experiments to investigate perceptions of “staying out of it.” In one, they recruited 187 college students and asked them to watch a short video of the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs answering a reporter’s question about players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. The owner replies, “We’re not doing anything about it today. … There’s really nothing to talk about.”
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: In the first, they were told that the audience for the press conference (the news station’s viewers and fans) was mostly conservative. In the second, they were told that the audience was mostly liberal.
Participants rated what the team owner actually thought about kneeling during the national anthem, indicating whether and how strongly he opposed or supported his players’ actions. Participants then shared their own beliefs on the topic.
Finally, participants indicated how they would feel about the team owner if he had expressed a view that opposed their own personal view instead of taking a neutral stance, assessing how their perceptions of his honesty, sincerity, and trustworthiness would change.
“What we found is that even though everyone saw the exact same video, they drew opposite conclusions about what the team owner believed” depending on what they had been told about the audience, Silver says. Participants who were told the team owner was speaking to a mostly liberal audience believed that “there’s nothing to talk about” meant he was opposed to kneeling during the national anthem, while those who believed the audience his was mainly conservative they believed the opposite.
In other words, people inferred that strategic motivation—the desire to hide one’s true beliefs—rather than an actual lack of opinion, was driving the owner’s decision not to take a public position.
And, surprisingly, participants found this seemingly calculated avoidance of disagreement to be less honest, sincere, and credible than outright opposition. “Many participants, whether they were on the right or the left, said they would trust him more if he just came out and disagreed with them,” notes Silver.
In other experiments, the researchers found the same pattern. Participants presented a variety of hypothetical scenarios for staying out—a state representative who refused to discuss the removal of Confederate statues, an English professor who did not want to share their views on the police protest, a family member who bypassed the issue of masking COVID-19 commands—made similar conclusions about the underlying beliefs of these actors. Participants consistently assumed that these individuals held views that would be unpopular with their audience, suggesting that statements of neutrality are often seen, fairly or not, as strategic ploys.
Better an enemy than “Who knows?”
In another experiment, the researchers looked at how refusing to state a position would impact who they chose to work with for a cooperative game. They recruited 600 online participants to play a modified version of what is sometimes called the prisoner’s dilemma gameexplaining to the participants that they will be paired with a partner and, simultaneously with their partner, will be asked to choose between the options ‘Rely’ or ‘Avoid’.
If both partners chose “Rely”, they would both receive 25 cents. If both chose “Avoid”, both would receive nothing. If one partner chose “Rely” and the other “Avoid”, only the partner who chose “Avoid” would receive 30 cents. The idea is that while selfishly belittling your partner is tempting, trust and cooperation work best for everyone.
“In our version, we let participants choose who they want to play with as a measure of who they trust to work with them in the game.”
To help them choose a partner, participants took part in a belief exchange exercise. First, participants indicated their personal positions on gun control by choosing between two statements: “I believe that ordinary citizens should be able to own guns” and “I believe that ordinary citizens should NOT have the right to they have weapons.” The researchers told the participants that their answers had been shared with two potential partners, who had been given the choice of either sharing their seat in return or refusing to take a seat.
Participants were then asked to choose between a partner who had refused to take a position and one who disagreed with their point of view. After choosing a partner, participants rated how much they trusted that partner and decided whether or not to cooperate in the game.
Participants showed a strong preference for partners who disagreed with them over partners who refused to take sides, with 61.2 percent choosing to play the credibility game with a political opponent and only 38.8 percent choosing a partner who remained neutral. Statistical analysis revealed that this preference was based on trust: participants found those who were willing to express opposing views more trustworthy than those who stayed away from it.
“We tend to take people’s positions on hot-button issues as an indication of their morality or credibility — if you’re my political enemy, I don’t trust you,” says Silver. However, in a situation where trust was directly in question, “participants chose the person who disagreed with them at higher rates than the person who refused to take sides.”
Introduction to political combat
Taking a stand, whether in a public space or at home with a politically divided family, can feel daunting. But, Silver points out, this research makes it clear that appearing unwilling to take sides is also a risky move.
“Shutting down these kinds of conversations does more damage to interpersonal trust than people realize,” he notes. “Engaging in respectful political discussion, versus avoiding the discussion at all costs, may be a safer and smarter interpersonal strategy than people realize.”
In fact, Silver points out, “this aligns with a broader set of findings coming out of workshops across the country right now, suggesting that people’s perceptions of the extent of antipathy between political parties are often exaggerated. Actually, our political opponents don’t hate us as much as we think.”
The same logic can be extended to companies. “Conventional wisdom in marketing and management holds that business leaders should avoid political issues at all costs,” says Silver. “I think our research, combined with a lot of other research, suggests that the conventional wisdom is not entirely correct. Just playing neutral isn’t as reputation-safe as it seems.” If people judge brands and organizations the same way they judge the public figures depicted in Silver’s studies, it stands to reason that the corporate fence can inspire mistrust and alienate customers in exactly the same way.
So, at your next family Thanksgiving or work lunch, it might not be the worst idea to say what’s really on your mind, as long as you do it respectfully. Even your political opponents may trust you more for it.