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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

False Polarization: Cognitive Mechanisms and Potential Solutions

Fernbach PM, Van Boven L
Current Opinion in Psychology


While political polarization in the United States is real, intense and increasing, partisans consistently overestimate its magnitude. This “false polarization” is insidious because it reinforces actual polarization and inhibits compromise. We review empirical research on false polarization and the related phenomenon of negative meta-perceptions, and we propose three cognitive and affective processes that likely contribute to these phenomena: categorical thinking, oversimplification and emotional amplification. Finally, we review several interventions that have shown promise in mitigating these biases. 

From the Solutions Section

Another idea is to encourage citizens to engage in deeper discourse about the issues than is the norm. One way to do this is through a “consensus conference,” where people on opposing sides of issues are brought together along with topic experts to learn and discuss over the course of hours or days, with the goal of coming to an agreement. The depth of analysis cuts against the tendency to oversimplify, and the face-to-face nature diminishes categorical thinking by highlighting individuality. The challenge of consensus conferences is scalability. They are resource intensive. However, a recent study showed that simply telling people about the outcome of a consensus conference can yield some of the beneficial effects.

The amplifying effects of anger can be targeted by emotional reappraisal through the lens of sadness; People who were induced to states of sadness rather than anger exhibited lower polarization and false polarization in the context of Hurricane Katrina and a mass shooting. In another study, induced sadness increased people’s willingness to negotiate and their openness to opponents’ perspectives. Sadness reappraisals are feasible in many challenging contexts involving threat to health and security, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that are readily interpreted as saddening or angering.