People who watch video of a debate in which their ideological ally occasionally agrees with or concedes a point to the “other side” are more likely to be open to the opposing view, understand the opposing view better, and even deepen their interest in the issue being discussed. That is one of the main findings of a study* on discussion site Bloggingheads.tv conducted by researchers at Tisch College with support from the Democracy Fund.

In an increasingly partisan political climate, media often heightens polarization at the expense of presenting where agreement and common purpose might be found. In order to combat this trend, Bloggingheadtv’s The Good Fight is a series of moderated online debates in which people who disagree about an important policy issue explore their differences and try to find common ground. Previous research has suggested that acknowledging the validity of an opponent’s arguments or seeing them as legitimate can improve political discourse.

In our survey experiment, a sample of almost 2,000 adults residing in the U.S. who self-identified as liberal or conservative watched public issue debates from The Good Fight. Separated by political identification, each group was randomly assigned to watch either a video with a concession to the debater arguing the opposing viewpoint, or one without a concession.

The research showed that those who view their ideological ally agreeing with an ideological opponent are more likely to view that opponent as credible or favorable, and are more likely to be open to what that person has to say than those who don’t view any concessions. Seeing some agreement also improved individuals’ understanding of alternative viewpoints while increasing interest in the topic being discussed. This effect was observed regardless of issue or topic being discussed, or the ideological position of the viewer, though these variables did impact the strength of the effect.

The discussion of vital public issues, particularly among those with serious disagreements, is one of the fundamental skills and practices of engaging in democracy.  This research shows that emphasizing respectful and honest dialogue, in which each side explicitly recognizes common ground and the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints, has a measurable positive effect on the discussants and could impact the quality of public discourse if adopted as a standard practice.

Read the full report.

*Updated with an expanded report