New research at CU explores our polarized politics

Nestled into their overstuffed chairs – wine and beers in hand – the Smith family stared eagle-eyed into the TV’s blue and red glow. 

The family – a mother and father and their two adult sons – gathered at the parents’ home to watch the second presidential debate. Between ebbs of focused silence, they occasionally broke into fits of yelling – not at one another but with one another – in unified outrage or agreement.

Decades ago, researchers began studying the polarizing effects of these types of interactions. When groups gather to engage in face-to-face discussions about a topic they already agree on, psychologists say, the individuals’ views are likely to become more extreme. 

Building on this idea, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that people often don’t realize this shift is happening. Instead, they are likely to misremember their positions before the discussion as being closer to their positions afterword.

“Showing that people’s views become more extreme in this situation is really a replication of many decades of research,” said Jessica Keating, a graduate student in her sixth year of doctoral studies and one of three University of Colorado researchers who authored the study. “I think our contribution to moving this area of research forward is showing the underestimation piece. The fact that people tend to be unaware of the extent of how far their attitudes shift in these contexts.”

Keating, along with professors Leaf Van Boven and Charles M. Judd, conducted their research by sorting undergraduate students into groups with similar political views and giving them a political topic to discuss for 15 minutes. Surveys conducted before and after the discussions showed that students’ views became more polarized, and that they underestimated the extent to which their opinions changed. This second piece is important, Keating said, because it’s difficult to change something if you don’t see it happening. 

That may be true, but it begs the question, why is polarization something we should try to change?

Some political scientists argue that polarization can make it easier to know who to vote for in elections, but other academics and officials — including President Barack Obama — warn against the dangers of a dramatically divided country.

“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” Obama said during his final State of the Union address last January.

Division between the parties can and has resulted in government shutdowns, near defaults, and an overarching inability for congress to effectively pass legislation. The source of this division is two-pronged, with polarization trickling up through the public and trickling down through media outlets and political figures.

On the public’s end, social norms and psychological factors are at play. There are three main causes of group polarization that come together during public discourse with like-minded people, Keating said. These factors include new information, corroboration, and a need for social conformity.

Imagine someone who believes in strict gun control laws discussing the issue with friends who also favor gun control. The person will start with background information – they may know someone impacted by a mass shooting and be familiar with statistics on gun-related deaths in Chicago – and then others in the group will share new information, maybe describing laws in Australia or statistics in Baltimore. This new information creates the first layer of polarization.

Next, the members will corroborate each other’s beliefs, perhaps saying they, too, heard that statistic about Chicago, and that it certainly is indicative of the problem at hand.

Finally, there’s a natural inclination to agree with the information and opinions others are presenting. It’s uncomfortable to stop and ask if the gun laws in Australia really pertain to the U.S. Instead, there’s pressure to agree and affirm.

“I think that third factor is the hardest one to see as it’s happening,” Keating said. “There’s good evidence from other researchers that we tend not to believe that we’re as prone to these conformity pressures as other people.”

On the other side of the issue are the political message creators: politicians themselves, as well as those working at blogs, newspapers, cable television programs, and everywhere in between.

A shift in the media landscape, from only a few mainstream newscasts covering essentially the same information to dozens of specialized cable talk shows – along with the introduction of blogs and social media – changed the way we consume, understand and prioritize information. 

Unlike their more balanced predecessors, some of today’s cable news shows openly skew toward one party or the other, practicing what Bill Covach and Tom Rosenstiel  call “journalism of affirmation” in their book, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Infromation Overload. The channels build loyalty with viewers by affirming, rather than challenging the audience’s beliefs.

In addition, our media landscape often rewards the loudest and most extreme voices, said Dr. Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at CU, who covered several campaigns as a political journalist.

“Even if you’re getting bad publicity, you’re getting publicity, right?” Skewes said.  “You become a player, even if people don’t like you.” 

While it’s easy to blame “the media” and politicians for extreme views and seemingly one-sided coverage, Keating and Skewes agree that it’s up to individuals to create change. People need to be motivated to engage in conversations with those whose views may be different, and must reward more balanced content with their attention, rather than focusing on the most sensational messages. 

“I don’t know that the media system is going to change dramatically unless it starts not to profit them, and so, if we as citizens want it to be better, we have to start rewarding the better stuff – which might be a little more like eating our spinach with our eyeballs,” Skewes said.

Audio Transcription:

Narrator: “I’m Stephanie Cook. Millions of people watched Sunday night as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed in their second presidential debate. If you’re someone who watched and discussed the debate with like-minded friends and family, researchers say your views may have just become more extreme without you ever noticing.”

Background audio of a political discussion during the debate

Narrator: “In a new study, University of Colorado graduate student Jessica Keating, and professors Leaf Van Boven and Charles Judd explored the hot-button issue of political polarization. After surveying undergraduate students engaged in 15 minute political discussions with peers who shared similar views, the researchers found that the students’ views became more extreme, though they were unlikely to recognize the change. Here’s Jessica Keating with more on her research.”

Jessica Keating: “So polarization is a bit of a hot-button issue right now, and has been for maybe the last decade or so, but going back further than that as well. Regardless of whether or not you believe the average citizen is becoming more polarized, there’s a sense that we are sorting into more homogenous groups. So we’re choosing to spend time around people who think like us and have the same beliefs and attitudes as us. And that, we argue, has consequences. So we started – there’s a long literature looking at how group polarization occurs in like-minded groups. So, going back to the 60’s, they were looking at things like the “Risky Shift,” so named because there’s a sense that in a group context, when people start to make decisions about whether to take a risky or conservative course of action, they tended to gravitate toward the risky side. But it turns out it’s not just a risky shift, really it’s this shift of extremity among like-minded people. So if you take just about any group of like-minded folks who tend to generally believe one thing or another, and you have them discuss that issue for, even just 15 minutes, they become more extreme in their attitudes.”

Narrator: “In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama warned about the kind of political division Keating describes, saying, ‘Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.’” For more on Keating’s work, you can find her paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, or follow the link in my latest article exploring the political, journalistic and psychological factors behind polarization at CU’s blog, Under the Flatirons.”

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