Social Psychology’s Insight on the Deep Divide

Today’s America is more polarized than in any recent decade. A record 77 percent perceive the nation as divided, reports Gallup. For the first time in Pew survey history, most Republicans and Democrats report having “very unfavorable” views of the other party.

A powerful principle helps explain today’s deep divisions: The beliefs and attitudes we bring to a group grow stronger as we discuss them with like-minded others. This process, known to social psychologists as group polarization, can work for good. Peacemakers, cancer patients, and disability advocates gain strength from kindred spirits. In one of my own studies, low-prejudice students became even more accepting while discussing racial issues. But group polarization can also be toxic, as we observed when high-prejudice students became more prejudiced after discussion with one another. The repeated finding from experiments on group interaction: Opinion-diversity moderates views; like minds polarize further.

Group polarization feeds extremism. Analyses of terrorist organizations reveal that the terrorist mentality usually emerges slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation (sometimes with other “brothers” and “sisters” in camps or in prisons), their views grow more extreme. Increasingly, they categorize the world as “us” against “them.” Separation + conversation = polarization.

The Internet offers us a connected global world without walls, yet also provides a fertile medium for group polarization. Progressives friend progressives and share links to sites that affirm their shared views and that disparage those they despise. Conservatives connect with conservatives and likewise share conservative perspectives. As Steve Martin tweeted, “Dear Satan, thank you for having my Internet news feeds tailored especially for ME!”

So, we feed one another information—and misinformation—and then share content we agree with. News, and fake news, spreads. Within the Internet’s echo chamber of the like-minded, viewpoints become more extreme. Suspicion becomes conviction. Disagreements with the other tribe escalate to demonization.

The first step toward depolarization is to realize the seductive power of group polarization, and even our own part in it. We need to step outside our comfort zone to hear and understand the other.