How Do You Remedy Affective Polarisation?

published on 04 August 2021
Photo by <a href=Josh Calabrese on Unsplash"/>
Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

As we discussed in the first instalment of our polarisation blog posts, affective polarisation is a present-day phenomenon with grave consequences on social interactions, economic transactions, and the efficacy of political institutions. The gravity of its consequences makes it a pressing issue to be addressed.

Although there doesn’t exist a universal cure to put an end to this harmful political phenomenon, scholars from social psychology, political science and communication studies came up with different strategies.

In our second instalment, we shift our attention to these remedies to affective polarisation.

Interacting with each other helps

One of the most frequently discussed theories relevant to mitigating affective polarisation is the intergroup contact theory. This theory’s basic idea is that encouraging interactions with people from the out-group and getting to know them better tend to reduce negative perceptions and prejudices [1].

Based on this theory, some scholars advance intergroup contact as a beneficial remedy for political polarisation. They highlight that normally, many people do not have the opportunity nor the motivation to interact with out-group members. Through experimental designs, researchers make their participants establish such contact. As a result, they find out that having an out-group friend or learning that a fellow in-group member has a friend from the out-group, reduces hostility and induces warmer feelings about the out-group members [2].

Similarly, in another study, researchers ask the participants to read an imaginary scenario where they have contact with an outparty member and to adopt a third-person visual perspective in imagining the conversation [3]. By posing questions after this mental exercise, the authors find that imagined contact with a political out-group directly reduces negative affect toward its members. Furthermore, they discover that the imagined contact indirectly serves to reduce the perception that the outparty is morally evil and the acceptance of political violence.

Remembering the greater good and what we share in common is important

As an alternative strategy, when individuals are reminded of their common identities and shared goals, they tend to sort out their differences with the out-group members by realizing their commonalities. This shift in perception paves the way for more sympathy and warmth towards the out-group.

To prove this, Levendusky investigates whether increasing the prominence of a higher American identity decreases polarisation among Democrats and Republicans [4]. As a result of his study, he indicates that when the sense of Americanness is primed, participants begin to perceive members of the opposing party as fellow Americans. This perception helps them leave their grudges behind by lowering the dislike and distrust of others. In this manner, they begin to see each other as fellow citizens by paying no attention to their party affiliations.

In a similar vein, other researchers provide evidence that supports that promoting patriotic feelings reduces out-group dislike by enhancing the salience of a common national identity [5]. With their experiment, they find that partisan trust gaps in the United States disappeared immediately in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Truly knowing who the others are and putting ourselves in their shoes changes our perceptions

In political affairs, there are certain types of information that mediate and help the affective evaluations of the citizens regarding the outparty.

To exemplify, Rogowski and Sutherland test whether presenting citizens with biographical information about the political candidates (i.e., the candidates’ backgrounds and political experiences) enables them to incorporate this information into their evaluations and mitigate the effect of their ideological differences [6]. They show that when participants receive relevant biographical information about the candidates, they take this into account, and their evaluations of the less favourable candidate become more positive. Here, their evaluations improve even though these candidates are ideologically distant from them. This study, therefore, indicates that it is possible to help voters make less biased and more informed decisions.

It is known that affective polarisation can also occur because members of the opposing groups have distorted versions of the other. They either ascribe false attributes to out-group members or fail to take their perspectives into account and empathise with them. One study reveals that while Republicans believe that 32% of Democrats are LGBT, Democrats suppose that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year [7]. Even though these suppositions are completely unwarranted, they are widely shared, and they increase the severity of out-group hostility. It is then important to clear these misperceptions or to prompt empathy [8] and perspective-taking [9] among different groups to buffer the consequences of polarisation.

To explore perspective-taking, in a study, scholars benefit from a narrative writing exercise so that they can enable their participants to express themselves and improve their affective responses toward a politically unappealing individual [10]. As the participants of this study read some tweets and provide a narrative about the tweeter, they put themselves in the shoes of imaginary Democrat or Republican characters. The results reveal that such first-person perspective-taking exercises improve attitudes toward the out-group and reduce the attribution of malevolence. That is to say that the affect toward and perceived similarity with the disliked member of the political out-group enhanced when the participants take their perspective.

We are not powerless against polarisation

Although affective polarisation is pernicious to society and the well-being of political institutions, these strategies indicate that there are certain ways to minimise it. As they are tested, these strategies provide statistically significant outcomes and appear plausible to implement.

However, these remedies are by no means exhaustive nor sufficient. They might fail to function in the complexities of a real-world setting and we have to bear in mind that almost all of them were tested in the context of the United States. More research is needed to come up with solutions that apply to different political settings.

In our next blog post, we will specifically talk about the role of the media in polarising society, and we will present our vision as Multytude to tackle this issue.

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[1]Paluck, E. L., & Green, D. P. (2009). Prejudice reduction: What works? A review and assessment of research and practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 339–367.
[2]Wojcieszak, M., & Warner, B. R. (2020). Can Interparty contact reduce affective polarization? A systematic test of different forms of intergroup contact. Political Communication, 37(6), 789–811.
[3]Warner, B. R., & Villamil, A. (2017). A test of imagined contact as a means to improve cross-partisan feelings and reduce attribution of malevolence and acceptance of political violence. Communication Monographs, 84(4), 447–465.
[4]Levendusky, M. S. (2018). Americans, not partisans: Can priming American national identity reduce affective polarization? The Journal of Politics, 80(1), 59–70.
[5]Carlin, R. E., & Love, G. J. (2016). Political competition, partisanship and interpersonal trust in electoral democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 48(1), 115–139.
[6]Rogowski, J. C., & Sutherland, J. L. (2015). How ideology fuels affective polarization. Political Behavior, 38(2), 485–508.
[7]Ahler, D. J., & Sood, G. (2018). The parties in our heads: Misperceptions about party composition and their consequences. The Journal of Politics, 80(3), 964–981.
[8]Fido, D., & Harper, C. A. (2018). The role of cognitive and affective empathy in understanding outgroup polarization.
[9]Paluck, E. L., & Green, D. P. (2009). Prejudice reduction: What works? A review and assessment of research and practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 339–367.
[10]Warner, B. R., Horstman, H. K., & Kearney, C. C. (2020). Reducing political polarization through narrative writing. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 48(4), 459–477.

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