Us and Them:
Can we bridge the divide?
Discussing politics with someone you disagree with can be a real challenge – even so, should we shy away from it?
What if tough conversations were silenced and replaced by division and anymosity instead? What if the “political other” were to be automatically ‘disliked’ or ‘hated’? When society gravitates to extremes, it becomes polarised. Polarisation, in turn, jeopardises the sound functioning of democracy by rendering it difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to find common grounds and a social consensus.
Can we find a way to bridge the divide between us and them ? In this article I disentangle polarisation from a psychological perspective and offer a possible way forward.
The psychology behind polarisation
Here’s a simple rule to start with: We tend to prefer information that reflects our prior beliefs and avoid information that challenges them. That is to say, we ‘selectively expose’ ourselves to information. In a way, like-minded, compatible information is very appealing to our brain, as it can be processed with more comfort and less effort.
Facts or Fakes?
When we are presented with new ‘facts’, we are more quickly to accept those facts that confirm what we had assumed or guessed rather than facts that disconfirm us (i.e. we exhibit a ‘confirmation bias’). This also entails that we are more sceptical towards everything that counters or challenges our own view, and apply much less scrutiny the rest of the time – there is no rational logic to this arbitrage.
An underlying motive could be that (in general) people like to feel good (not bad) about themselves. They like to preserve a favourable self-image. In that sense, they are not necessarily keen to discover that a belief that they highly valued and viewed as accurate is incorrect. Hence, they will probably not deliberately look out for information that contradicts a pre-held belief.
Enclaves and Echos
We mainly circulate in spaces, where we encounter like-minded people and information. For instance, when we use or consume (social) media, we stay inside a filtered bubble, surrounded by people that globally think alike. The result are enclaves and echo chambers, in which you’ll see your views confirmed by others, but almost never encounter anyone who would criticise or question them.
Seeing your own attitudes and mindset mirrored in others works as a catalyst of polarisation: When your beliefs appear to be shared, legitimised and validated by “a critical mass of people”, that tends to give you more reason to be a strong advocate of something. This mechanism is highly problematic once people are locked in spheres where racism and discrimination are downplayed and accepted for example.
How can we bridge the divide?
A series of experiments conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard University revealed that polarisation can be weakened when, in a conversation, you ask someone to explain the mechanics or details of an issue and of the policy they claim to support. The experiments showed that when people have to explain HOW something works, they realise that the underlying issue is much more complex than they initially thought. So asking for a ‘mechanistic explanation’ exposes an „illusion of understanding” in humans and makes us aware that we lack full understanding. This in turn helps to relativise attitudes and leads to more moderate views.
In contrast, when you ask someone to say WHY they are in favour of a certain policy or WHY they support one policy over another, i.e. when you ask for a ‘causal explanation’, people tend to gravitate to more extreme, polarised attitudes. This is because they will seek arguments that support/defend their own position, and omit opposing views on that matter. That in turn strengthens their conviction that they must be right and “the political other” must be wrong.
Giving reasons for why you like or dislike something won’t help resolve differences, as reasons can be based plainly on preferences, ideology or hearsay. If instead we engaged in more substantive discussions, we’d have to confront the limits of our understanding. The positive side effect: It works as a corrective, weakens polarisation and raises political tolerance to the benefit of society.
Written and published July 2020
add-on: How Trump fuels polarisation
The US two-party system is a fertile soil for polarisation. The strong and growing divide between Republicans and Democrats and their respective partisans is undisputable. Add to it a President who constantly fuels polarisation and that’s what you get: First, Trump perfectly masters the technique of “deliberate selective exposure” by shrugging off as “fake” everything that could challenge or disprove him. Second, he intentionally uses hate speech to flock behind him core voters in what some might call “a desperate attempt to preserve his power”. As photographer Philipp Toledano put it “Here is a man who fails upwards on a grandiose scale. He builds not with innovation, invention, or hard work, but with guile, hyperbole, and deceit. He succeeds with lies.”
List of references I used in this article
Duhaime, E. P., & Apfelbaum, E. P. (2017). Can information decrease political polarization? Evidence from the US Taxpayer Receipt. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(7), 736-745.
Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological science, 24(6), 939-946.
Kim, Y. (2015). Does disagreement mitigate polarization? How selective exposure and disagreement affect political polarization. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 92(4), 915-937.
Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide. Oxford University Press.