Could beer heal a divided nation? A Heineken advertisement — “Worlds Apart: An Experiment” — seems to suggest as much. Or does it?
The commercial features three pairs of complete strangers with opposite opinions on climate change, feminism and transgenderism. They know nothing about each other, only that they are to build a bar and bar stools from printed instructions. In the middle of the endeavor, each pair is directed to take a seat, share personal information and find things in common. Once the bar is built, the strangers, now budding friends, watch video clips of each other expressing opposing viewpoints. The unseen announcer then says, “You now have a choice. You may go or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.” To a one, they stay.
Heineken is a decent beer, but it’s not that good. What makes these participants amenable to drinking with those with whom they passionately disagree isn’t the quality of the brew but the efficacy of “pre-suasion.” “Pre-suasion” is the term coined by Robert B. Cialdini, author of “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade,” for preparing people to be receptive to persuasion. The Heineken experiment convinced potentially antagonistic individuals to happily sit down together because it first cultivated a sense of unity among the participants through cooperation (bar building) and the discovery of commonalities.
Multiple studies confirm the impact of these unitizing activities. In one study, a group of MBA students was told to negotiate and come to an agreement. A second group was directed to first share personal information and identify commonalities prior to negotiation. Fifty-five percent of the first group came to an agreement, compared to 90 percent of the second group. Cooperation has a similar unitizing effect. Research on intergroup conflict shows that adversaries can become allies when they work together to achieve mutual goals.
Do unitizing activities have the potential to bring Americans together in this era of deep political division? One local experiment demonstrates what is possible. Troubled by the divisive election, longtime Denver area resident Paula Reed decided to hold a beer summit with guests who have opposing political views. Each of the six participants — myself included — agreed beforehand to discuss topics people normally avoid at dinner and to contribute a written reflection of the evening for Reed’s blog. It wasn’t just a dinner party but a kind of experiment which required a level of cooperation and commitment.
When I arrived for dinner, I hadn’t seen our host since she was my high school speech coach at Columbine High School. The others were strangers to me, but not for long. We took much time introducing ourselves and found we had much in common despite our political differences. The establishment of common ground helped level the rocky terrain of the subsequent political discussions. For example, before dinner, three participants shared their struggles with infertility. When the conversation later turned to the legality of abortion, arguably the most contentious topic one could discuss over dinner, the shared pain of infertility rendered the conversation not less intense but more gracious.
Over the course of four hours, we discussed the election, religion, foreign and domestic affairs, news sources, and other controversial subjects that people generally avoid at dinner. The conversation was spirited at times, but never acrimonious. Everyone came away with a deeper understanding of one another’s views. Sharing bread has a way of replacing liberal and conservative stereotypes with flesh and blood.
One dinner participant later reflected, “What if this happened in every neighborhood, in every community?” The trouble is that it doesn’t just happen. Human beings are naturally drawn to those they perceive to be like themselves. Being with people who are different, especially when those differences are political or religious, requires openness, effort and the pre-suasive groundwork necessary to create a greater sense of unity. It also requires leadership. Someone has to serve the beer.
Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is co-host of “Kelley and Kafer,” which airs 4-7 p.m. weekdays on 710 KNUS.