by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
We have noted previously that there are two different phenomena called “polarization.” The first, political polarization, refers to the ideological distance between opposing political parties. When it’s rampant, political rivals share no common ground, and thus cannot find a basis for cooperation. Political polarization certainly poses a problem for democracy. Yet belief polarization is perhaps even more troubling. It is the phenomenon by which interactions among likeminded people result in each adopting more radical versions of their views. In a slogan, interactions with likeminded others transform us into more extreme versions of ourselves.
Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years, and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Likeminded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Likeminded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take; and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.
Our widespread susceptibility to belief polarization raises the question of how it works. Two views immediately suggest themselves, the informational account and the comparison account. Read more »