Yesterday the United States government shut down because Democrats and Republicans could not come to an agreement on….well, anything. Why can’t our elected officials set aside their differences for the good of the country? Depending upon one’s political viewpoint, the answer is often along the lines of blaming the other side for “not being cooperative,” “being fiscally irresponsible,” “not caring about the American people,” or just plain “being idiots.”
Social psychologists have been studying the increasing polarization in American culture for decades. Even if we start with the assumption that both sides are acting in good faith and want the best for all of the citizens of the United States (a huge assumption, I know, considering the current emotionally charged climate permeating both political parties), there are psychological factors at play that are contributing to this stalemate.
“Group Polarization” (Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969) is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals make riskier (or more extreme) decisions when they are in a group of like-minded others than they would on their own. A typical research design involves measuring individuals’ initial attitudes toward an issue. Then, they are placed in a group with other people who share their viewpoint and are asked to engage in a discussion on the topic. After discussion, individual attitudes are measured again. Findings from dozens of studies show that participants’ attitudes shift towards a more extreme view of the issue after they have discussed it with others who hold the same view. Imagine how much more magnified this effect would be if a person (let’s say a politician) spent many hours, years, or a whole career having these types of discussions.
Due in part to group polarization, we have two groups of people trying to run our country with increasingly disparate viewpoints of the correct way to do it. Now, let’s add in two more psychological factors: in-group bias and confirmation bias. In-group bias is our tendency to favor our own group over the “other group” (i.e., the “outgroup”). Regardless of who “they” are, we think “we” are better than “them.” Confirmation bias is a handy-dandy mental trick in which we focus on evidence that supports our side of an issue while ignoring disconfirming evidence. Confirmation bias allows us to maintain our belief that we are correct while our opponent is wrong (even if it’s not true).
But if two groups have opposing opinions, doesn’t one group have to be wrong? Well, yes, but the important thing to remember is that it is not “us” who is wrong. It’s “them.” It’s always “them,” no matter which side of the issue we take. Another psychological principle comes into play that allows us to maintain our self-serving belief in our rightness of our perspective: the false consensus effect (Marks & Miller, 1987). The false consensus effect is our tendency to overestimate the commonality of our beliefs (i.e., we falsely believe that “most people” agree with our side of an issue). We manage to convince ourselves of this shared agreement with the help of confirmation bias, in-group bias, and group polarization.
In effect, we have the perfect recipe for our government gridlock. Both sides are convinced that they are right and that the other is wrong. The more each side talks among themselves, the greater the divide becomes.
Of course, identifying causes of problems is always easier than fixing them. The good news is that, as humans, we do have the capacity to over-ride our default settings (cognitive biases) by employing two necessary ingredients of good reasoning: skepticism and humility. We need skepticism to entertain the thought that “maybe I’m wrong,” and humility to admit that “maybe the other guy is right.” Psychological science tells us that the best ways to do this are by purposefully engaging in conversations with others who disagree with us; attempting to argue points from the other perspective; and actively searching for superordinate goals (shared goals that transcend short-term individual gains) using integrative agreements.
Marks, G., & Miller, N. (1987). Ten years of research on the false-consensus effect: An empirical and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 102, 72-90.
Moscovici, S., & Zavalloni, M. (1969).The group as a polarizer of attitudes.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 124 – 135.