When and Why “Staying out of It” Backfires in Moral and Political Disagreements

Ike Silver*, Alex Shaw

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


People care where others around them stand on contentious moral and political issues. Yet when faced with the prospect of taking sides and the possibility of alienating observers with whom they might disagree, actors often try to “stay out of it”—communicating that they would rather not to take a side at all. We demonstrate that despite its intuitive appeal for reducing conflict, opting not to take sides over moralized issues can harm trust, even relative to siding against an observer’s viewpoint outright. Across eleven experiments (N = 4,383) using controlled scenarios, real press video clips, and incentivized economic games, we find that attempts to stay out of the fray are often interpreted as deceptive and untrustworthy. When actors choose not to take sides, observers often ascribe concealed opposition, an attribution of strategic deception which provokes distrust and undermines real-stakes cooperation and partner choice. We further demonstrate that this effect arises only when staying out of it seems strategic: Actors who seem to hold genuine middle-ground beliefs or who lack incentives for impression management are not distrusted for avoiding conflict. People are often asked to take sides in moral and political disagreement. Our findings outline a reputational risk awaiting those who opt not to do so.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Impression management
  • Nondisclosure
  • Polarization
  • Politics
  • Trust

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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