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Curbing the Tide of Political Polarization

By Shiri Spitz Siddiqi

On January 6, 2021, thousands of armed Americans stormed the United States Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump in 2020. The rioters were so opposed to the idea of Biden becoming president that they forcibly breached a government building, threatening the lives of the members of Congress inside. Acts of political extremism like the January 6th riots reflect the widening rift between liberals and conservatives in the United States, a phenomenon known as political polarization. The divide has become so acrimonious that Dr. Eli Finkel and his research group have described it as “political sectarianism,” a reference to bitter religious warfare (Finkel et al., 2020). Finkel and colleagues (2020) are not referring simply to a type of political polarization called issue polarization, where Democrats and Republicans agree less and less on their social and economic policy preferences. They’re talking about a specific form of political polarization called affective polarization, in which Democrats and Republicans feel hostility and animosity toward each other on an interpersonal level (Iyengar et al., 2019). It’s the rise of affective polarization that has political psychologists particularly worried for democracy.

… studies suggest that most American partisans don’t just disagree with their political opponents – they may also think of them as bad people, and they appear to avoid spending time with them.

The Rising Tide of Affective Polarization

Pew Research Center has been documenting the rise of this partisan animosity for decades. In 1994, they reported that 16% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans had “very unfavorable” views of the opposite party in 1994, whereas in 2014 those percentages had risen to 38% and 43%, respectively (Pew Research Center, 2014). In the same 2014 survey, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans even reported believing that the opposite party’s policies threaten the well-being of the country. In 2022, Pew found that most Republicans and Democrats think voters of the opposite party are more immoral, dishonest, and close-minded than other Americans (Pew Research Center, 2022). Other research has documented the behavioral consequences of these negative beliefs. In a project analyzing millions of cellphone records, one team of researchers found that Thanksgiving dinners with Democrats and Republicans present were up to 50 minutes shorter in 2016 than in 2015 (Chen & Rohla, 2018). In other words, studies suggest that most American partisans don’t just disagree with their political opponents – they may also think of them as bad people, and they appear to avoid spending time with them.

Not surprisingly, the rising tide of partisan animosity has spurred a large body of psychological research on reducing affective polarization. Political psychologists have focused much of their energy on developing interventions aimed at reducing partisan animosity. Frequently, these interventions involve an activity, thinking exercise, or behavioral nudge that encourages political tolerance in some way. For example, people find dialogue with a political opponent more enjoyable and have a higher opinion of them when the other person discusses how their personal experiences – rather than data and statistics – shaped their political attitudes (Kubin et al., 2021). While this intervention tries to encourage civil behavior between partisans, other types of interventions try to change partisans’ negative stereotypes about their opponents or attempt to make societal institutions (like the media) better role models of political tolerance (Hartman et al., 2022).     

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge

Political polarization is more than just animosity between partisans. The events of January 6th revealed that if the other side seems dangerous and corrupt, some people may believe that it is justified to bend democratic norms and even engage in violence to keep them from achieving power. With another Trump-Biden face-off around the corner, history threatens to repeat itself if we continue down our current path. So what does psychological science tell us about how to turn the heat down?

people find dialogue with a political opponent more enjoyable and have a higher opinion of them when the other person discusses how their personal experiences – rather than data and statistics – shaped their political attitudes.

In 2022, a team of Stanford researchers led by Jan Voelkel conducted a study in which they tested 25 political polarization interventions crowdsourced from the scientific community. Dubbed the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, the study randomly assigned a sample of about 32,000 Americans to one of the 27 conditions: 25 interventions and two controls. Participants completed several measures of political polarization before and after completing their intervention condition, with some participants repeating the same measures two weeks later as a test of the interventions’ lasting power. Key among these measures were the three outcomes highlighted by January 6th: partisan animosity, support for undemocratic practices (e.g., refusing to accept unfavorable election results), and support for partisan violence. One explicit aim of the study was to test whether interventions that reduced partisan animosity also reduced support for undemocratic practices and support for partisan violence.   

Overall, the results were promising. Almost all of the interventions successfully reduced partisan animosity, with six interventions showing sustained reductions two weeks after the initial study session. The top-performing interventions used one of two strategies: showing examples of sympathetic outparty individuals and highlighting similarities between political groups. The most effective intervention was an existing Heineken beer commercial in which people from opposite political parties worked together to complete a challenging task (over a couple of Heinekens, of course). Other effective interventions included one that appealed to Democrats’ and Republicans’ common distaste for polarized media and another that highlighted their common identity as Americans.

However, the interventions that most reduced partisan animosity were not particularly effective at reducing support for undemocratic practices or partisan violence. While several interventions considerably reduced partisan animosity for weeks at a time, reductions in support for undemocratic practices and partisan violence tended to be smaller and didn’t last as long. Some of the interventions that successfully reduced partisan animosity even backfired, including one highlighting a common distaste for the media (which increased support for undemocratic practices) and one showing footage of the January 6th riots (which increased support for partisan violence among extreme Republicans). Interventions that were more successful tended to focus on correcting people’s negative stereotypes of their political opponents. One promising intervention asked people to estimate the extent to which their political opponents supported a number of democracy-undermining practices like using violence and refusing to accept electoral defeat. After seeing the true levels of support for these practices among their political opponents, which tended to be markedly lower than their estimates, participants decreased their own support for undemocratic practices and partisan violence.

While several interventions considerably reduced partisan animosity for weeks at a time, reductions in support for undemocratic practices and partisan violence tended to be smaller and didn’t last as long.

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge (SDC) has immense significance for political psychologists trying to understand and address political polarization. The major strength of the study is that its methodology enables direct comparisons between interventions, which is more difficult to do when surveying findings across many published papers. In the SDC, the study authors tested all 25 interventions (plus control groups) at the same time, used the same measures to evaluate each intervention, and used random assignment to determine which participants received which intervention. This design (also known as a “megastudy”) allowed the researchers to truly isolate the effect of each intervention from nuisance variables that typically plague comparisons across scientific studies, including differences in participant demographics, timing in history, and the measures used. Ultimately, this is what enabled the authors to draw valid conclusions about which interventions worked the best on each outcome of interest.  

Another strength of the SDC lies in its systematic examination of a common yet untested assumption among political psychologists: that undemocratic practices and partisan violence are direct consequences of partisan animosity (Voelkel et al., 2022). If this is the case, then one might expect that reducing partisan animosity through an intervention should also reduce support for undemocratic practices and partisan violence. Contrary to this idea, the lead authors of the SDC reported in another paper that two interventions that reduced partisan animosity did not reduce support for democracy-undermining practices (Voelkel et al., 2022). Indeed, the results of the Strengthening Democracy Challenge suggest that effective strategies for reducing partisan animosity have little effect on or even exacerbate support for democracy-undermining practices, casting doubt on the underlying theoretical assumption that these outcomes are directly related to each other.  

Indeed, the results of the Strengthening Democracy Challenge suggest that effective strategies for reducing partisan animosity have little effect on or even exacerbate support for democracy-undermining practices, casting doubt on the underlying theoretical assumption that these outcomes are directly related to each other.  

Conclusion

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge should give us hope that reducing political polarization is possible. All 25 interventions were designed to be deployable quickly across many settings, and none took more than eight minutes to complete. Several interventions reduced partisan animosity for weeks after participants’ initial exposure, and the effects of repeated exposure may be even stronger (although they have not yet been tested). One lesson, however, is that emotional hostility toward outpartisans and disengagement from democratic norms are different facets of political polarization, and targeting one will not necessarily affect the other. While there are fewer interventions  specifically targeting adherence to democratic norms, the insights from the Strengthening Democracy Challenge can provide a promising starting point. 

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Written by Shiri Spitz Siddiqi
Illustrated by Aishwaria Maxwell
Edited by Liza Chartampila, Mary Cooper, Tia Donaldson, and Keionna Newton

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References

Chen, M. K., & Rohla, R. (2018). The effect of partisanship and political advertising on close family ties. Science, 360(6392), 1020–1024. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq1433

Finkel, E. J., Bail, C. A., Cikara, M., Ditto, P. H., Iyengar, S., Klar, S., Mason, L., McGrath, M. C., Nyhan, B., Rand, D. G., Skitka, L. J., Tucker, J. A., Van Bavel, J. J., Wang, C. S., & Druckman, J. N. (2020). Political sectarianism in America. Science, 370(6516), 533–536. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abe1715

Hartman, R., Blakey, W., Womick, J., Bail, C., Finkel, E. J., Han, H., Sarrouf, J., Schroeder, J., Sheeran, P., Van Bavel, J. J., Willer, R., & Gray, K. (2022). Interventions to reduce partisan animosity. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(9), 1194–1205. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01442-3

Kubin, E., Puryear, C., Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2021). Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6), e2008389118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2008389118

Pew Research Center. (2014, June 12). Political Polarization in the American Public. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

Pew Research Center. (2022, August). As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration With the Two-Party System. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-frustration-with-the-two-party-system/

Voelkel, J. G., Chu, J., Stagnaro, M. N., Mernyk, J. S., Redekopp, C., Pink, S. L., Druckman, J. N., Rand, D. G., & Willer, R. (2022). Interventions reducing affective polarization do not necessarily improve anti-democratic attitudes. Nature Human Behaviour, 7(1), 55–64. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01466-9

Voelkel, J. G., Stagnaro, M., Chu, J., Pink, S., Mernyk, J., Redekopp, C., … & Willer, R. (2022). Megastudy identifying successful interventions to strengthen Americans’ democratic attitudes. Northwestern University: Evanston, IL, USA.

Author

  • Shiri Spitz Siddiqi

    Shiri Spitz Siddiqi is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, working with Dr. Pete Ditto and Dr. Pia Dietze. Her research focuses on "culture war" issues (for example, cultural appropriation, diversity, and free speech), both in terms of how people make judgments about them and in terms of their consequences for democracy. An avid collaborator, Shiri is also an affiliate with the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. In her free time, she enjoys knitting, listening to podcasts, playing the cello, and hanging out with her cat, Scout. Shiri received her BS in Psychology and BA in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Before beginning her PhD program, she managed the EEG Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Colgate University.

Shiri Spitz Siddiqi

Shiri Spitz Siddiqi is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, working with Dr. Pete Ditto and Dr. Pia Dietze. Her research focuses on "culture war" issues (for example, cultural appropriation, diversity, and free speech), both in terms of how people make judgments about them and in terms of their consequences for democracy. An avid collaborator, Shiri is also an affiliate with the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. In her free time, she enjoys knitting, listening to podcasts, playing the cello, and hanging out with her cat, Scout. Shiri received her BS in Psychology and BA in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Before beginning her PhD program, she managed the EEG Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Colgate University.