By Zaria Gorvett
Imagine you’re in a bar, discussing the upcoming election with your friends. You admit you’re undecided. In fact, you can see both sides of the argument. They stare back at you as though you’ve just said you’d like to murder baby pandas.
Politics has never seemed more tribal. In America, it’s Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton. In Europe, it’s the Europhiles vs the Eurosceptics. In Turkey, it’s the Islamists vs the secularists.
In the US, Australia and Europe, the gap between liberals and conservatives, the left and the right is widening. Look at social media, and it can feel like antipathy towards the other side is becoming increasingly intense.
In the US, for example, “very unfavourable” views of the other party more than doubled between 1992 and 2014, according topolls by the Pew Research Center. Fast-forward to 2016 and most – as opposed to just many – Republicans and Democrats view the opposition in deeply negative terms. Of nearly 5,000 people surveyed, over half believe the opposition is “closed-minded”, while around four in 10 are convinced supporters of the rival party are more “lazy”, “immoral” and “dishonest”than other Americans.
Antipathy towards the other side is becoming increasingly intense
So, what might be driving this tribalism? Psychological research reveals subconscious forces, which – in the face of facts, experience or better judgement – prevent people seeing alternative points of view and push them into ever-more-partisan camps. And some scientists believe that many aspects of 21st Century living could be creating the perfect conditions for falling victim. In fact, from where people live to what they read, modern life has an alarming power to entrench people’s political affiliations and views – without them even realising it.
One potential explanation is the so-called group polarisation effect. Discussing views with friends might seem like the perfect way to expose the flaws in thinking and hear similar but alternative points of view. It’s not. “If you put a group of like-minded people in a room, their attitudes generally become even more extreme,” says Jessica Keating, a psychologist from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
To test the idea, Keating and colleagues brought some undergraduate students into the lab to talk politics. In the first experiment, groups of like-minded individuals debated whether Barack Obama or George W Bush was the better president. In the second, whether they supported Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
After the discussion, they were asked how they felt about that candidate now and what their original attitude had been before the experiment. As Keating expected, their attitudes were universally more extreme. Alarmingly, the shift happened in the space of just 15 minutes. And they had no idea it was happening.
Spending time with like-minded people is likely to expose you to new arguments which further convince you of your own views
“In the first study they had no idea their attitudes had polarised at all – in the second they vastly underestimated how extreme their views had become,” says Keating.
No one knows for sure what causes the effect, but it may simply be down to new information: spending time with like-minded people is likely to expose us to new arguments which further convinces us of our own views. Or perhaps it’s the result of trying to gain acceptance by the group.