June 13, 2022

How Do We Make Society Less Polarized?

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

In our increasingly socially and politically polarized society, it ironically seems that the only thing most Americans can agree on is that our society is, indeed, polarized. Journalists, scholars, and the general public alike have noted the vast and growing rift dividing the country into two camps.

Whether it be relating to politics, public health measures, or what children should be taught in schools, the vast majority of Americans believe they don’t share the same values as those on “the other side.” A recent article in The Atlantic even writes of a “red America” and a “blue America” as two different countries; separate nations that are “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.”

Most research on polarization reflects this pessimistic outlook on the state of public opinion in the U.S. A recent study shows that polarization significantly increased between 1972 and 2016: people’s attitudes toward various issues have become more consolidated and neatly organized around an ideological core, with less cross-cutting of various beliefs than there was in the past.

For example, people who are both pro-gun and pro-choice – who could agree with both sides of the aisle on different social issues – are much less common than they used to be. Similarly, while there was no notable partisan difference in people’s confidence in scientists in the 1980s, liberals now report markedly higher rates of trust than conservatives. There has been mounting concern that segregated media-consumption habits contribute to polarization by enabling confirmation bias, or the affirmation of people’s pre-existing beliefs. However, a research team found that exposure to opposing viewpoints online also makes people firmer in their beliefs, rather than less so.

If encountering information that we already agree with makes us more polarized, and if encountering information that we disagree with has the exact same effect, is anything we can do to improve this situation?  Attitudes, according to research, can be surprisingly difficult to change, prompting researchers to explore other ways to foster positive social change without necessarily changing people’s attitudes.

For example, studies have demonstrated that our perception of how people around us behave can effectively guide our own behavior – even if our attitudes remain unchanged. Researchers call this “normative influence,” as it is our perception of a group’s norms (that is, what is and isn’t acceptable to those around us) that wields influence over our behavior. For instance, you may not be able to make someone “love” recycling (i.e. changing their attitude in order to achieve behavioral change), but you may be able to convince them to start recycling if they believe that is the norm in their community.

Ultimately, this approach is rooted in the idea that individuals have a deep desire to fit in and do what’s considered acceptable in their group, as well as a fear of receiving backlash if their behavior does not conform to the group’s norms. The question is how effective this approach to behavioral change would be in our current polarized climate, where backlash from the opposing group is always expected and people are increasingly less likely to criticize someone in their own camp.

Some recent research, however, points to perhaps a more promising way that we can enact social change. In an article entitled “Revision, Reclassification, and Refrigerators” published in Sociological Forum, authors Terence McDonnell, Dustin Stoltz, and Marshall Taylor argue that a potential source of behavioral change lies in the way in which we classify things.

To collect data for their study, they used a survey experiment in which respondents were shown pictures of the contents of different refrigerators and had to classify these refrigerators as belonging either to a Trump voter or a Biden voter. After respondents had completed a round of classification, some were told that their classifications were wrong – what the researchers refer to as “definitive feedback.”

They found that receiving such feedback made respondents more likely to reclassify the refrigerators, thus changing their original assessment. On the other hand, receiving “normative feedback” about how most other respondents had classified the images had no effect on respondents’ willingness to revise their original classification. The authors conclude that normative language may encourage people to “embrac[e] an embattled minority opinion,” rather than changing anyone’s mind about the issue, and that providing definitive (or factual) answers may instead be more effective.

Applying these findings to current polarizing debates, we can see that popular media headlines such as “Majority of Americans Don’t Want Roe Overturned” or “Polling Is Clear: Americans Want Gun Control” may not be as convincing as we might think. In fact, they might trigger a polarizing response – particularly among those who feel that the minority has a right to be heard.


Good information! I read this article

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