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Understanding Across the Political Divide

10/30/2012 --

New research from Ross professor shows people who vote for opposing candidates relate to each other's choices.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It might be hard to see in an election year full of vitriolic ads and editorials, but supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seem to understand where the other side is coming from, according to new research from Ross Marketing Professor Yesim Orhun.

While people tend to project themselves onto others, psychologists have argued that phenomenon ends when somebody makes an opposite choice. But instead of choices, Orhun's research focused on evaluations.

By studying voters prior to the 2008 presidential race, Orhun and her co-author — Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business — showed that people do project themselves onto others, even when they support different candidates. For instance, an Obama supporter who strongly liked the candidate reasoned that a John McCain supporter strongly liked McCain, as opposed to not liking Obama.

Their paper, "Conditional Projection: How Own Evaluations Influence Beliefs about Others Whose Choices are Known," is the first to show that people's evaluations affect their beliefs about the thinking of others. This occurs when others' choices are known, even when the choice differs.

Just as important, it distinguishes the specific way in which people rely on their own evaluations to make sense of others. The paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Orhun and Urminsky also show that changes in a person's evaluation lead to a change in his or her beliefs. "I think our results are game-changing because people have thought that Obama voters don't rely on their own experience or preferences to make sense of McCain voters, or Mitt Romney voters, and if they do, it's in polarizing terms," Orhun says. "But we don't find that. We find they rely on how they feel about their preferred candidate to make sense of others who prefer the other candidate. For example, people who like Obama a lot don't think Romney voters hate Obama. They think the other side just likes Romney a lot."

The findings can help people develop a strategy on how to approach others with different beliefs and choices.

"If I know my neighbor supports the other candidate, how am I going to talk to or approach this person?" she says. "It depends on what I believe he thinks about my candidate. If I believe he does not hate my candidate, it might be an easier, less defensive conversation."

The research also has implications for many common consumer decisions. For example, a person's own evaluation might influence their choice of a gift for another person, even when buying a gift for someone with different tastes. The study also shows people may use themselves as a basis for thinking about others when making strategic business decisions.

The idea for the research came by questioning the previous models on how people project themselves onto others.

"Previous research all said that projection dies when it comes to people who are different," Orhun says. "We thought, 'Why should this be? Why are we only using the choice paradigm?' So we went with the evaluation paradigm and uncovered a fundamental finding that was missed."

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,