The antidote for polarization

We are living in spectacularly polarizing times. Even though some sources (1,2) claim that we are not as polarized as it seems, people still perceive more division in society than before. The global Edelman trust barometer pointed out that 64 percent of people believe their country lacks the ability to have constructive and civil debates nowadays. And even perceived polarization can lead to actual division in society. Research shows that this works through a worrying feedback loop: (perceived) polarization tends to increase cognitive inflexibility, meaning people become less capable of updating their beliefs upon new information or switching between different ways of thinking. And this cognitive inflexibility can in turn increase polarization again.

So the question arises: how to mitigate or even reverse increasing polarization? We recently found two studies that focused on exactly that question and found some interesting strategies.

  • One experiment focused on the social effect of people that are similar, but have opposing political views. For example, fans of the same football team (similar) that support a different political party (opposing view). Generally, people are not very open to people with opposing views (especially in a polarized environment), yet a unifying secondary factor could bridge the gap between people, allowing them to open up regarding other dimensions (like politics). This in turn enables people to entertain a different perspective from someone that is (at least in one regard) just like them and generate more mutual understanding, effectively decreasing polarization. What are the things that your employees or customers have in common? For example, take a look at how Lacoste brought seemingly opposites together by focusing on this principle.
  • A second series of experiments found that Americans would rather harm their own political cause than help an opposing one. When given the option to make a donation to an opposing political party or subtract the same amount from a donation to their own political party, over 70% of people chose the latter. This seems to resonate with a concerning 2020 paper that found that, while in-party warmth (the degree to which people support their own political party) has remained largely stable over the last decades, out-party hate has steadily increased. This finding suggests that polarization is not fueled necessarily by stronger convictions into one’s own ideology, but a growing aversion against ‘the other side’. The above mentioned series of experiments did however identify one uniting factor: when people hear other party members donated to the opposing party instead of subtracting it from their own party, they were more likely to do the same. So giving in and extending a gesture of goodwill has the potential to convince more people to show empathy to the other side. Worth a shot, no?

To conclude, social influence shapes our convictions and behavior in many ways, not in the least towards groups we feel opposed to. If you want to contribute to a united and socially cohesive society in which we benefit from inclusivity, as a place where respectful debates about the big topics of our time can flourish, it is essential to understand the underlying mechanics that fuel aversion between out-groups. And brands also have a role to play. Because unlike the media and the government, businesses are perceived as institutions that bring people together instead of dividing them, with 45% of people agreeing that they are a “unifying force” in society (versus 31% who see it as a divisive force). So ask yourself, how can you or your brand bring people (back) together?