HomeLearning CenterWhy Political Polarization Grows—And How to Reduce It

Why Political Polarization Grows—And How to Reduce It

Originally published by Bill Eddy for Psychology Today

Fears of extreme polarization are repeated widely these days. Yet the process of polarization is one that can be understood and managed. Rather than wringing our hands and wondering what we did to cause this, we can unplug polarization with a few actions within our control.

It helps to understand that polarization is often driven by people with high-conflict personalities who emotionally engage in “splitting,” seeing people and groups as all-good or all-bad and intensely communicating this to others. This is particularly a characteristic of Cluster B personalities, especially narcissistic and antisocial. When they get into leadership positions, they often polarize groups as a way of increasing their power.1 But group members can overcome this.

Why It Grows

Studies show that when two opposing groups talk and listen to only those within their group, they not only remain polarized but become even more so. For example, many years ago, three researchers organized small groups of citizens in Colorado to discuss current political issues within their group. One group was typical of residents of the city of Boulder, known for being liberal, and another group was typical of people in Colorado Springs, known for being conservative. They had them discuss three issues within their group: climate change, affirmative action, and same-sex civil unions (before gay marriage was approved). They wrote down their views individually and anonymously beforehand.

The result was the following: “People from Boulder became a lot more liberal on all three issues. By contrast, people from Colorado Springs became a lot more conservative. The effect of group deliberations was to shift individual opinions toward extremism…. There’s a big lesson here. Group deliberations often makes not only groups but also individuals more extreme, so much so that they will state more-extreme views privately and anonymously.”2

How Does This Occur?

These researchers drew three conclusions from this study and others. First, that “informational influence” makes a group with an initial predisposition on a subject reinforce their original positions with more supporting arguments. Second, “social influences” mean that group members will adjust their views to fit more with the group leader’s views and/or the views of the majority of group members. Third, at first many members may be tentative in their opinions, but as they “gain confidence” they tend to become more extreme in their views. All put together, their slightly different viewpoints tend to come together in a stronger consensus.3

How Can Polarization Be Reduced?

In 2019, a university study brought together 526 voters from around the country who were representative geographically and politically. They spent a long weekend at a resort outside Dallas, Texas, discussing a variety of policy position papers. The participants and the policy papers were not identified by political parties and partisan words were removed as much as possible.

The result was the following: “Over four days, mostly in small groups, they debated foreign policy, health care, immigration, the economy and the environment…. Often, the language voters used was personal rather than political…. In fact, some people did change their minds…. Voters at the event on both the left and the right appeared to edge toward the center…. Many participants described their surprise at finding common ground with one another…. Everywhere there were unlikely pairings of people, just talking, with no moderators.”4

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