Printing superordinate identities

Another possible solution is making people think of themselves less in terms of their issue, group, and partisan affiliations and more in terms of other social identities. As Iyengar and Krupenkin (2018) show, partisanship has become one of the most salient social identities in America; this, in turn, may make Americans more hostile towards their out-party. Further, recent studies suggest that decreasing the salience of people’s partisan identities can decrease affective polarisation. Levendusky (2018a) demonstrates that priming Americans’ national identity reduces affective polarisation — likely because it reduces the salience of their partisan identities. The same result emerged in a follow-up natural experiment, in which affective polarisation among survey respondents was lower among those who responded close to the Fourth of July — most likely because this day primed their national identity vis-à-vis their partisan identities. Similarly, in another natural experiment, Carlin and Love (2018) illustrate that Americans’ ‘trust gap’ (i.e. their tendency to trust co-partisans more than rival partisans) narrowed during the time of Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011.

Priming people’s national identity may, however, have harmful consequences. Wojcieszak and Garrett (2018) uncover, across three experiments, that priming national identity makes American immigration opponents more affectively polarised. A way to overcome this limitation may be to make people think of their shared humanity rather than their national identity. Work on dehumanisation lends credence to this idea. In an experiment, Albarello and Rubini (2012) primed the superordinate identities of white Italian undergraduates (i.e. made their human identities salient) and used ‘multiple categorisation’ (by providing additional information about people besides skin colour — such as age, gender, and religion). These two interventions decreased subjects’ dehumanisation of the person being described. Priming the salience of certain identities may help alleviate the discrimination that can result from polarisation; however, further research is needed to fully understand these effects.

Possible solutions that need refinement

Although it is useful to learn about solutions that seem to address polarisation, it is also worthwhile to review solutions with inconsistent evidence about their ability to reduce polarisation and solutions that seem to inflame, rather than reduce, polarisation. We review several such solutions next.

One proposed solution, with several studies providing preliminary support, draws from self-affirmation theory. Self-affirmation occurs when people see themselves positively (Steele and Liu 1983), such as when people think about their talents or aspects of their lives in which they excel. Applied to polarisation, people who have been self-affirmed are more likely to engage thoughtfully with views unlike their own (e.g. Binning et al. 2010), which can reduce polarisation. Yet subsequent evidence is less optimistic about the efficacy of self-affirmation for curbing polarisation; self-affirmation can increase polarisation under some circumstances (van Prooijen, Sparks and Jessop 2012) and fail to make any difference in others (Levendusky 2018b). Despite initial promise, there is a need for caution in seeing self-affirmation as a solution to polarisation.

Another proposed solution is to prime partisan ambivalence and encourage people to think about the desirable attributes of an opposing political party. Recognising the positive attributes of undesirable policies or polities might make people’s attitudes less polarised. Efforts to prime partisan ambivalence, however, have not found any such effects on those with stronger partisan attitudes, although there appear to be some effects among moderates (Levendusky 2018b). This is explained by the difficulty that stronger partisans have in articulating desirable aspects of an opposing party.

A third solution involves encouraging people to recognise their lack of in-depth knowledge. People overestimate their understanding of how things work, which is known as the illusion of explanatory depth. Some research suggests that awareness of this overconfidence can lead to more moderate attitudes (Fernbach et al. 2013), yet additional research did not find evidence that prejudice towards those with different views was affected by a similar manipulation (Voel-kel, MJ and Colombo 2018).

A fourth potential solution with particular relevance to science communication, consensus messaging, warrants additional examination. Especially relevant to the issue of climate change (Cook 2016), consensus messaging conveys the degree of agreement among experts about a scientific topic. Some studies suggest that consensus messaging can significantly increase perceived consensus and acceptance of anthropogenic climate change (Bolsen, Leeper and Shapiro 2014; Myers et al. 2015), as well as support for vaccinations (van der Linden, Clarke and Maibach 2015). Other research, however, has cast doubt on the efficacy of this approach (e.g. Dixon and Hubner 2018). More research on consensus messaging is needed and should be designed to reflect real-world conditions where accurate and misinformation co-exist (Cook 2016). Telling people the conclusions of experts, it seems, is not always sufficient to curb polarised beliefs and attitudes.

A final, often-discussed solution is education in critical reading and thinking skills and the importance of getting information from multiple sources. Education remains essential so that people can be savvy information consumers and effectively use new technologies with an appreciation for their capabilities and limitations. Yet identifying effective media literacy messaging to curb the spread of misinformation and combat polarisation is not always straightforward, with several projects turning up null results (e.g. Stroud 2011; Vraga, Bode and Tully 2020). More research on these proposed solutions may turn up more encouraging evidence, but to date, they do not seem to be viable solutions to polarisation.

Scalable solutions

The theories discussed earlier are rooted in psychology and offer theoretical rationales for and empirical evidence of their ability to reduce the harmful consequences of polarisation. Yet another important criterion for thinking of solutions is scalability. A successful in-person intervention building on interpersonal contact theory may work for the 40 people involved, but the extent of polarisation requires more far-reaching ideas.

The limitations of scale can easily be seen when evaluating approaches that ask people to fact-check information for themselves. These types of interventions quickly run afoul of the reality that information tracking and sense-making have become increasingly difficult. Effective information technologies can help us manage this information deluge. Social media platforms are estimated to employ over 100,000 human moderators to help filter objectionable content, and new programmes have been announced to figure out how to scale up misinformation efforts (Facebook 2019). In addition to human efforts, algorithms can be created to automatically remove content and to select and prioritise what content human moderators should review next. These efforts can be, and are being, employed at scale to try to reduce mis/disinformation and, in turn, polarisation. Other ideas offer similar potential to scale. Mediated interpersonal contact, for example, doesn’t require people to meet in person, and even relatively small effects can be more cost effective than more in-depth interventions.

 
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