Social Psychology’s Insight on the Deep Divide

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Today’s America is more polarized than in any recent decade. A record 77 percent perceive the nation as divided, reports Gallup. For the first time in Pew survey history, most Republicans and Democrats report having “very unfavorable” views of the other party.

A powerful principle helps explain today’s deep divisions: The beliefs and attitudes we bring to a group grow stronger as we discuss them with like-minded others. This process, known to social psychologists as group polarization, can work for good. Peacemakers, cancer patients, and disability advocates gain strength from kindred spirits. In one of my own studies, low-prejudice students became even more accepting while discussing racial issues. But group polarization can also be toxic, as we observed when high-prejudice students became more prejudiced after discussion with one another. The repeated finding from experiments on group interaction: Opinion-diversity moderates views; like minds polarize further.

Group polarization feeds extremism. Analyses of terrorist organizations reveal that the terrorist mentality usually emerges slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation (sometimes with other “brothers” and “sisters” in camps or in prisons), their views grow more extreme. Increasingly, they categorize the world as “us” against “them.” Separation + conversation = polarization.

The Internet offers us a connected global world without walls, yet also provides a fertile medium for group polarization. Progressives friend progressives and share links to sites that affirm their shared views and that disparage those they despise. Conservatives connect with conservatives and likewise share conservative perspectives. As Steve Martin tweeted, “Dear Satan, thank you for having my Internet news feeds tailored especially for ME!”

So, we feed one another information—and misinformation—and then share content we agree with. News, and fake news, spreads. Within the Internet’s echo chamber of the like-minded, viewpoints become more extreme. Suspicion becomes conviction. Disagreements with the other tribe escalate to demonization.

The first step toward depolarization is to realize the seductive power of group polarization, and even our own part in it. We need to step outside our comfort zone to hear and understand the other.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see