“A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current.”
And so George Orwell described Two Minute Hate, when Party members in his classic dystopian novel, 1984, must express their abhorrence of Party enemies for exactly two minutes.
1984 is fiction of course. But it’s not far from one of our personal experiences (Alex’s) campaigning for a major U.K. political party over the past 15 years. Simply because she identifies with a particular party, Alex has had bricks thrown at her and has been yelled and sworn at by strangers, sometimes in front of her three-year-old daughter. This hatred has grown in recent years.
Alex’s experience reflects an increasingly split United Kingdom and United States, where ideological and political polarization (defined as the division of attitudes, typically along a single dimension)— have evolved into a new “phenomenon of animosity,” according to political scientist Shanto Iyengar and colleagues. That phenomenon is affective polarization—when ordinary people “increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party.” Research from 2010 shows, for instance, that nearly half of Republicans, and about one third of Democrats, said they would feel “somewhat or very unhappy” if their child married a member of the opposing party. This was around 5 percent in the 1960s.
Simply because she identifies with a particular party, Alex has had bricks thrown at her and has been yelled and sworn at by strangers, sometimes in front of her three-year-old daughter.
Put another way, we increasingly dislike the political “other” with both our head and our heart. The consequences of affective polarization extend beyond the political domain, spilling over to our relationships, hiring decisions, and even medical advice. Polarization prevents progress and promotes paralysis on the biggest issues facing the world: climate change, inequality, immigration.
Although affective polarization and ideological polarization are two separate concepts in the academic literature, some researchers suggest that ideological polarization might fuel or contribute to the rise of its emotional cousin. If that’s true, the first step to tackling the negative consequences of affective polarization is to understand whether and how ideological polarization can be moderated.
Our research suggests one way to do so could be through mechanistic reasoning, whereby we encourage people to explain the mechanics or details of the policies and positions they claim to support, and how those details lead to a specific outcome.
To learn why this might work, we need to understand how affective polarization operates. We see affective polarization when a few behavioral patterns converge: our tendency to lump people into overly simplified categories, feel positively toward the in-group to which we belong, and feel negatively toward an outgroup.
Today, this tendency to form groups is inflamed by a political and media environment characterized by online echo chambers and increasingly homogenous offline networks. Indeed, simply hearing opposing political views or contradictory evidence can backfire and make us more extreme.
We often overestimate our understanding of how political policies work…The more omniscient we think we are, the easier it is to ignore alternative facts or ideas.
One reason for this effect, and for the polarizing outcome, is we often overestimate our understanding of how political policies work. In this case, the more omniscient we think we are, the easier it is to ignore alternative facts or ideas. This phenomenon has a name—the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). Unless explicitly tested, individuals can remain largely unaware of the shallowness of their own understanding of the things they think they understand—such as the mechanics of a bicycle, or how the policy they support or despise will actually work.
Researchers have started to explore what happens to political attitudes when you explicitly test people on how much they actually know about a policy. When people discover that they don’t know as much as they thought they did, something interesting happens: their political attitudes become less extreme.
In one U.S. study, when research asked participants of various political affiliations to explain how different policies, such as instituting a cap and trade system, would bring about specific outcomes, like reduced carbon emissions, they moderated their attitudes and reduced their donations to relevant advocacy groups. In contrast, the participants who simply provided a list of reasons that they supported a policy did not. These findings, researchers conclude, could imply a connection between polarized attitudes and overly simplistic mental models for how policies actually work.
A recent experimental study (by Kate, in preparation) investigated this phenomenon in U.K. voters’ policy views of Brexit. When researchers asked participants to simply list the reasons for their views, participants actually reported a minor increase in their Leave-Remain position. But when asked to explain how Brexit would impact a specific policy area (e.g., the impact of leaving the E.U. Single Market on the U.K.’s economy), researchers exposed an illusion of explanatory depth for both Leave and Remain voters. Both voter groups’ policy positions also moved in the direction of becoming less extreme, though this latter effect was not statistically significant. However, further analysis did reveal an association between a reduction in an individual’s level of certainty with a decrease in their reported level of understanding and how extreme their views were. One interpretation of these results is that attempting to explain policies made people feel more uncertain about them, which in turn led them express more moderate views.
When people discover that they don’t know as much as they thought they did, something interesting happens: their political attitudes become less extreme.
This research provides evidence that the way people reason about their policy views can impact the extremity of their attitudes. And it suggests that we can influence these perspectives—and potentially the destructive, downstream impacts of ideological polarization—by changing the way we ask questions.
Imagine this. A journalist or a researcher asks a citizen, let’s call him John, why he voted for Brexit. He replies, “Because I want the U.K. to have greater sovereignty, as I believe fundamentally in freedom.” Stopping here makes it easy for John to conceal whether or not he understands how Brexit would lead to greater sovereignty. The questioner should continue and ask John: “How would Brexit make the U.K. a more sovereign and free nation?” encouraging him to articulate how Brexit might cause desired outcomes. In this case, John is prompted to move beyond values (in this example, sovereignty and freedom), hearsay, and feelings—which don’t require much knowledge. His response and views could become less extreme as a consequence.
Although the research on the illusion of explanatory depth that we discuss doesn’t examine the link between ideological polarization and emotional reactions toward outgroups who hold opposing views, it does suggest that encouraging people to confront their own knowledge gaps before exposing them to new or contradictory information could make them more open to receive it, more able to change their views, and less likely to convert their ideological views into emotional responses.
Some countries and institutions are already using these insights to improve decision-making on divisive topics. Deliberative democracy, which plays out in the form of citizens’ assemblies and juries, where a small group of people (12-24) come together to deliberate on an issue, provide time and information to encourage participants to generate explanations—rather than justifications based on values, hearsay, or feelings—for their positions. Participants also tend to be representative of the general population; research suggests that increasing contact between diverse individuals could also help diminish affective polarization by shrinking the prejudices we form when making assumptions about the “other” that are based on reductive stereotypes, rather than real, complex people.
Instead of justifying why you support a particular position so strongly, try to explain how it might lead to a particular outcome.
Outside of juries and citizens assemblies, countries like Ireland have used deliberative democracy to address a range of complex and highly polarized issues including same-sex marriage, access to abortion, and climate change. U.K. politicians from both sides of the aisle have called for a Brexit assembly to try and break the U.K. political deadlock. Will it work? We don’t know yet, and we’d encourage researchers to continue to study this topic. In the meantime, we can each begin by confronting our own ignorance. Before committing to a position or policy, ask yourself to explain mechanistically how you think it will bring about the intended outcome. Do you really understand it?
Test your own mechanistic reasoning. Pick a topic you feel strongly about: climate change, Brexit, Immigration, gun laws, assisted suicide/legal euthanasia. Instead of justifying why you support a particular position so strongly, try to explain how it might lead to a particular outcome.