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Group polarization in American politics

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Ready to add a current and relevant example of group polarization to your social psych lecture?

At NITOP I had a lobby conversation where Victoria Cross was showing Jane Halonen and myself an online course she had created to help students get up to speed before taking a stats class. In one of her modules, she has a wonderful Pew Research Center animated gif showing the polarization of American politics between 1994 and 2014 (Suh, 2014).

After discussing group polarization, show students the animated gif on this page (click on the "Animate data" button).

National surveys show that over a 20-year span, Americans have become more polarized in their political beliefs (as have members of Congress). 

Here is a still shot from 1994 showing the difference between people who identified as Democrat and people who identified as Republican. Not only are the medians close, but there is a lot of overlap in the political leanings of the members of the parties.

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In this still shot from 2014, you can see that the Democrats have moved more to the left and the Republicans have moved more to the right, and the overlap between the parties has shrunk. In Congress, the division is even greater. "[T]here is now no overlap between the two parties; in the last full session of Congress (the 112th Congress, which ran from 2011-12), every Republican senator and representative was more conservative than the most conservative Democrat (or, putting it another way, every Democrat was more liberal than the most liberal Republican) (Suh, 2014).

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Invite students to take a couple minutes to think about what they just learned about group polarization. How might the factors that are known to contribute to group polarization apply in this example. Give students an opportunity to share with one or two students near them. After discussion dies down, ask a couple volunteers to share their explanations.

Next, ask students to consider ways to counter this group polarization. What can we do as individuals to reverse this political group polarization? After small group discussion, ask volunteers to share their suggestions.

 

References

Suh, M. (2014, June 12). Section 1: Growing Ideological Consistency. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-1-growing-ideological-consistency/ 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.