Explaining political polarization through psychology. 


On Wednesday, Jan. 6, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building to overturn his election defeat, clearly displaying America’s deep political divide to the world. Now more than ever, our country is split between red and blue. Instead of focusing on the true quality of government, the focus of many voters is protecting their political identities as Democratic or Republican.  

This divide is termed as political polarization, where political attitudes lean towards two extremes of the spectrum. Polarization in America is the highest it has been in 20 years. Experts have attributed many causes to this, including partisan media and even gerrymandering. However, one simple cause that many overlook is people’s basic psychological tendencies.

Political Psychology Theories

Social Identity Theory

According to Chris Federico, a political psychologist at the University of Minnesota, the social identity theory may explain America’s growing divide. This theory proposes the tendency for people to associate who they are with the group they’re a part of. 

“You like members of that group more than others. You want things to reflect favorably upon your group. You’re biased toward believing things that reflect positively on your group,” Federico told the American Psychology Association. “Once you’re a member of a group, all kinds of group processes related to social identity kick in.”

Another important aspect of social identity theory is the ‘us’ and ‘them’ concept. Henri Tajfel was an important social psychologist who developed the social identity theory and cognitive aspects of prejudice. He claims that people tend to exaggerate differences between groups (them) and overstate similarities between members of the in-group (us). A hypothetical line of thought that demonstrates this is as follows: we, as members of this political party, are much more educated and smarter than the other party. All of us hold college degrees, while all of them are high school dropouts. This statement is not actually politically accurate, since there is clearly a range of educational backgrounds in both parties. However, this unifying mindset is still prevalent within society today.

As a result, people are likely to disregard everything associated with the other party to maintain their own identity. Senior Ellie Kim shares the same thoughts. 

“A repercussion I see from having polarization is that no matter what the policy the candidate is running, you see a Democratic or Republican Party,” Kim said. “Whichever one…you are surrounded by, you immediately choose that candidate and I think that that’s very damaging.”

According to an article by De-Wit, Linden, and Brick from the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, studies have shown that the labeling of a policy as Democratic or Republican greatly affects people’s support for the policy, regardless of what they actually believe in. One study in particular showed that although most Republicans believe climate change is real, they were less inclined to support climate policies that were proposed by Democrats. 

Motivated Reasoning

Similar to the social identity theory, another cognitive phenomenon that greatly affects our political system is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is people’s tendency to warp the information they’re presented with to fit their existing beliefs. It can also describe how people are more likely to believe statements that confirm what they already think and dismiss ones that contradict their beliefs. Thus, motivated reasoning reinforces people’s existing political biases and polarizing opinions. 

When interviewed about their opinions on political polarization, Cupertino City Council members Hung Wei and Jon Wiley expressed insightful views regarding people’s narrow mindset. Wei described how social media greatly reinforces people’s motivated reasoning, subsequently exacerbating the political divide.

“When people do social media, because they don’t see each other, they tend to collect information that fits what they think, or fits what they already know,” Wei said. “So they kind of feed on each other, so it’s very hard to be open minded to other perspectives.”

In addition, Wiley revealed that he observed political polarization on both a national and local level. Even for issues of housing and infrastructure development in Cupertino, people are often heavily divided. 

Affective Prejudice

As people become more extreme in their beliefs and polarization strengthens, resentment between parties also increases. When these negative feelings become more intense and vehement, it is called affective prejudice by psychologists. This is where people attach feelings of dislike towards certain groups and harbor strong feelings of personal resentment towards all that share opposing opinions. By incorporating an emotional aspect into politics, the divide between parties is deepened. A 2020 paper from PhD authors Berg, Hameiri and Bruneau, described, “Affective prejudice is thus associated with intentions and behaviors that favor the ingroup over the outgroup, and may fuel a desire for social distance from outgroup others that prevents bipartisan cooperation.” 

Dehumanization

This prejudice can even go a step further to become dehumanization, a psychological process where people redefine the outgroup to lose human qualities and become almost animalistic. Even though most Americans likely would not believe that they dehumanize the opposing party, this tendency may still exist in people’s minds either with or without their awareness. According to Erin C. Casse from the University of Delaware, in 2016 election, “These kinds of comments were also directed at the candidates’ supporters, with Clinton referring to Trump supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’ and Donald Trump Jr. saying of Democrats: ‘To me, they’re not even people.’” When political figures demonize their opponents, the likelihood of political violence among ordinary citizens also increases. 

 “This research has found that blatant dehumanization is clearly relevant between political partisans on both sides of the ideological spectrum,” Berg wrote, “who attribute more animalistic traits to political outgroup members and explicitly view political outgroups as less than fully human.”

Solutions

The issue of political polarization has been rooted in American society for centuries, but it has intensified in the last few years. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

To counter the polarized media in America, senior Sathvika Musavathy shared the steps that she will take to develop her own opinions.

“I will definitely do my research and look at policies instead of blindly doing what the crowd is doing,” Musavathy said. “Instead of just blindly accepting what everyone’s saying, looking into what they’re saying and what they stand for is important.”

In addition, Wei emphasized the importance of face-to-face interaction to bring people together and bridge the deep political divide. 

“As an elected official, what I tell people is that I would love to hear opposing perspectives,” Wei said. “And I found that after zooming, the hostility is much, much lessened. So I believe personal touch is very important in communicating.”

This sort of face-to-face conversation is known in psychology as intergroup contact. Instead of seeing the other party as a collective “other”, people are able to see them as humans and gain a new perspective. 

Especially now, these sort of solutions are necessary to mend America’s increasingly hostile political climate. In light of the recent storming of the Capitol building, Wiley stated that communication was key. 

“If only we can take that back to Washington before Wednesday and say ‘Look everybody, talk! Share! Be respectful,’” Wiley said. “As a country [open communication is] what the world admires about the United States.”

By looking at America’s current political state, political polarization seems to be strengthening with no way back. Nevertheless, by remembering that these issues actually stem from people’s basic psychology, America can take steps to rebuild itself on the basis of compromise, open-mindness, and sharing.

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