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Friday, January 6, 2023

Political sectarianism in America

Finkel, E. J., Bail, C. A., et al. (2020).
Science, 370(6516), 533–536.


Political polarization, a concern in many countries, is especially acrimonious in the United States (see the first box). For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter—how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge vis-à-vis political ideals and policy goals. Such competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, researchers have identified a second type of polarization, one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party (1). This literature has produced a proliferation of insights and constructs but few interdisciplinary efforts to integrate them. We offer such an integration, pinpointing the superordinate construct of political sectarianism and identifying its three core ingredients: othering, aversion, and moralization. We then consider the causes of political sectarianism and its consequences for U.S. society—especially the threat it poses to democracy. Finally, we propose interventions for minimizing its most corrosive aspects.


Here, we consider three avenues for intervention that hold particular promise for ameliorating political sectarianism. The first addresses people’s faulty perceptions or intuitions. For example, correcting misperceptions of opposing partisans, such as their level of hostility toward one’s copartisans, reduces sectarianism.  Such correction efforts can encourage people to engage in cross-party interactions (SM) or to consider their own positive experiences with opposing partisans, especially a friend, family
member, or neighbor. Doing so can reduce the role of motivated partisan reasoning in the formation of policy opinions.

A related idea is to instill intellectual humility, such as by asking people to explain policy preferences at a mechanistic level—for example, why do they favor their position on a national flat tax or on carbon emissions.  According to a recent study, relative to people assigned to the more lawyerly approach of justifying their preexisting policy preferences, those asked to provide mechanistic explanations gain appreciation for the complexities involved.


From the end of the article:

Political sectarianism cripples a nation’s ability to confront challenges. Bolstering the emphasis on political ideas rather than political adversaries is not a sufficient solution, but it is likely to be a major step in the right direction. The interventions proposed above offer some promising leads, but any serious effort will require multifaceted efforts to change leadership, media, and democratic systems in ways that are sensitive to human psychology. There are no silver bullets.

A good reminder for psychologists and those involved in the mental health field.