BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO
8:00 am
Mon November 12, 2012

Can We Reduce Political Polarization?

Final state results from the 2012 Election. Can red and blue states find common ground?
Final state results from the 2012 Election. Can red and blue states find common ground?
Credit AP

It’s an issue that hangs heavy on our minds in the wake of the election: polarization. We sat in front of our TVs on election night and watched the map of America get divided into red states and blue states. We expect the map will turn mostly blue on the coasts and mostly red in the South and Midwest.

We’re familiar with the divided colors on the map, how does this kind of polarization develop? Steve Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University and co-author of the recent New York Times article "I'm Right! (For Some Reason)," has found that polarization results from a lack of understanding.

When we listen to Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, our political views become more extreme. How can we find common ground?
When we listen to Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, our political views become more extreme. How can we find common ground?
Credit At Hand Guides, Dr. Scott M. Lieberman / Flickr Creative Commons, AP

Understanding that We Don't Understand

"People in the political domain suffer from what’s called ‘the illusion of explanatory depths,’ [meaning] they think they understand things that they just don’t,” Sloman explains. “We believe that this is one of the sources of the contentiousness in our political world. When we think we understand things, it seems to lead us to take strong, intransigent positions. But fortunately what we know is that it’s easy to break people of that feeling"

As Sloman indicates, people believe themselves to understand political positions — such as the issues that bifurcated the political parties during the election. In fact, people think that they espouse their political ideas because they understand what each given policy entails and how it would work.

But we understand less than we think — many of the policies we feel strongly about are incredibly complex, and most people don't actually understand the specifics of how and why they might function in the real world.

It is this underlying uncertainty that can help us combat polarization. When approaching someone with an opposing viewpoint — say foreign relations with China — Sloman says you shouldn’t question their views directly, asking, “Why do you think we should stand up to China?”  That approach actually spurs people to become more defensive.

Instead, to combat polarization, studies show you should ask people to explain how the policy that they believe in works — for example why standing up to China would help us create jobs.

"What you have to ask them is: ‘Why is it that you believe this policy is going to lead to the things that you want?’ So you have to ask people to unpack the causal mechanism that underlies the policy that you’re talking about,” Sloman explains. “What we find is that when we ask people those questions they have much less to say than they think they do."

Congress, Capitol Building
Congress may want to borrow some of these tactics as it works to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Credit Serge Melki / Flickr Creative Commons

Closing the Gap Between Us

Once people realize that they don’t have a precise understanding of any given policy measure, they moderate their views and come to understand that the connection they believed to be so obvious is, in fact, a lot less clear. They also become open to new ideas — to different explanations about whether talking to China about changing their exchange rate really has much of an impact on creating jobs in New Jersey or Kansas.

Scholars who study this phenomenon say that one of the benefits of the research is that it helps people to understand what they know and don't know. Once you understand the brain's tendency to overestimate itself — whether we're talking about comprehending the intricacies of tax policy or even something as simple as how a pen really works — it can help us to embrace a kind of humility that we didn't see during the election season.  

The need for that humility won’t end just because Election Day has passed. Todd Rogers, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, also studies behavioral science and polarization. Rogers believes that as we leave the 2012 campaign trail and enter the next four years, understanding how to decrease polarization could become increasingly important.

"I think we’re entering into a much more interesting, rich, and frankly scary period, where there are incredibly important issues that have to be resolved,” Rogers argues. “The fiscal cliff is just the most immediate of them, but there are lots of long-term issues that have to be resolved in this presidency…We’re going to enter into a period where there is going to be massive, extremist, partisan debate about issues that no one really understands."

As Rogers and Sloman note, understanding that we don’t understand the issues could be the first step towards a resolution. 

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