Why Are Politics So Polarized? And, How Can We Be More Open-Minded?
Partisan Politics - Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey CartoonPhoto Credit: DonkeyHotey

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, many Americans were surprised to learn that Scalia was a close friend of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite the fact that the two had opposite views on many issues, they maintained a close friendship: Ginsburg even stated that she and Scalia were “best buddies.” As one political correspondent commented, “They liked to fight things out in good spirit — in fair spirit — not the way we see debates these days on television.” Scalia and Ginsburg’s friendship was noteworthy to so many people for precisely this reason—it seemed so unexpected in our current era of political polarization. Especially in light of the political debates that have been occurring in the present election, it may be surprising to see two people forming a friendship despite disagreeing on the issues.

Have politics really become more polarized today than in the past? And, if so, what can be done about it? In today’s post, I’ll talk about whether or not voters are actually becoming more polarized, give some reasons why politics are so polarized today, and review some ways psychology could be used to improve communication between people from different political parties.

Are we really more polarized than ever before? According to recent research, Democrats and Republicans are indeed polarized today, and the two parties have become more polarized over the last few decades. However, the amount of polarization today isn’t actually as extreme as you might expect. In one survey, participants were asked to state their own views on issues (such as healthcare, defense, and government spending), and to guess how members of the other party felt on the issue. The researchers found that participants thought Democrats were more liberal than was actually the case, and that Republicans were more conservative than was actually the case. One especially interesting finding was that people with more extreme attitudes tended to think the two parties are especially polarized. In other words, if you hold extreme views yourself, you might assume that everyone on the opposite side of the aisle is equally extreme, even if this isn’t necessarily the case (this phenomena is sometimes known as psychological projection and can go in both directions).

Why are we so polarized? Social psychologists have found that a variety of factors can affect how we form opinions on political issues. Read on to learn about three factors that may be contributing to political polarization.

  1. Once we identify with a party, it shapes how we evaluate policies. Psychologists have found that, in both parties, people tend to support the policies endorsed by their party. In one study, participants read about a proposed welfare policy that was either relatively generous or relatively stringent. Some participants were told that the policy they read about was supported by the vast majority of Democrats, while others were told that the policy was supported by the vast majority of Republicans. The researchers found that participants were strongly influenced by whether or not their own party supported the policy: liberals who were told about the relatively strict welfare policy supported it if they were told that other Democrats supported it, and conservatives supported the relatively generous policy if they thought that other Republicans supported it. In other words, we have a tendency to agree with our own political party, rather than evaluating policies independently. What could this mean for politics? Once someone identifies with a party, it may be harder for them to look across the aisle and evaluate the other party’s policies objectively.
  2. We tend to look for information that supports what we already believe. Psychologists have found that we have a tendency to seek out new information that’s consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, and to deny information that contradicts our beliefs. In one study, for example, participants read an article about the health risks of caffeine for women. Females who drank a lot of caffeine were more critical of the article than were males or women who didn’t drink as much caffeine. In other words, the participants who were motivated to disagree with the article (the female coffee drinkers who had just been told coffee was risky for them) were the most likely to find something wrong with the article–presumably because they wanted to justify their decision to keep drinking coffee. In other words, we’re often motivated to find evidence that supports what we want to find. How might this play out in politics today? Given that we have access to such a wide array of news sources to choose from, it’s not too surprising that we’d choose the ones that support our views. When we’re evaluating political policies, we may end up looking for information that confirms what we want to believe, rather than seeking out information that broadens our horizons.
  3. Liberals and conservatives may think about morality differently. A third possible reason for political polarization may be that liberals and conservatives have different definitions of what constitutes a moral issue. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Democrats and Republicans may disagree on political issues because they have different moral foundations that they use when making decisions on political issues. The moral foundations that individuals might use when making decisions include preventing harm to others, promoting fairness, being loyal to one’s group, supporting established authority, and avoiding things that are seen as impure. In a set of studies testing moral foundations theory, it was found that liberals were most concerned with harm and fairness when making moral decisions. However, in addition to considering harm and fairness, conservatives were also found to pay attention to group loyalty, authority, and purity when making moral decisions. In other words, one reason why Democrats and Republicans may have difficulty agreeing is because they consider different factors when deciding whether something is moral.

What can we do about this? Although political polarization may seem entrenched, psychologists have found that there are actually ways to help people become more open to new ideas. In some research studies, participants are asked to complete a self-affirmation, a task where they write about a value that is important to them. Psychologists who do this research have found that reflecting on values can help people to feel less threatened in situations where their beliefs are being challenged. After reflecting on an important value, people are able to remind themselves that the issue they are being challenged on is only one aspect of their life, which makes it less threatening to consider that other people have views that differ from theirs. In one study testing this idea, pro-choice and pro-life participants were asked to watch a debate about abortion and report on how much they liked each of the two debaters. Not too surprisingly, participants rated the person they agreed with more highly. However, when participants first completed a self-affirmation (by writing about a value unrelated to politics), their tendency to do this was reduced. In other words, self-affirmations can help us think more rationally, by reducing the tendency to automatically praise those who are on our side and disparage those who disagree with us.

Political polarization may seem to be deeply ingrained in our political system, and there are indeed several psychological factors that may contribute to polarization. However, it is important to remember that political polarization is not necessarily as extreme as we think it is: those who have extreme views may tend to see our political system as more polarized than it actually is. Additionally, psychologists have found that we may be able to consider the evidence on political issues more objectively if we first take a moment to reflect on other, non-political values that are important to us. Doing so may help us to think about our political views in a more balanced way, and it may also help us to be more understanding of those whose opinions differ from our own. Although we may not all form friendships as unlikely as Scalia and Ginsburg’s, there do appear to be ways that we can work to become more open-minded when considering political issues.

Additional Reading:

National Public Radio (2016). Ginsburg And Scalia: ‘Best Buddies.”

Van Boven, L. & Sherman, D. (2014). Only the Polarized are Actually Polarized. New York Times.

Sherman, D. & Van Boven, L. (2014). Similarities between Democrats, Republicans make them so different. The Los Angeles Times.

Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808-822.

Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 636-647.

Moralfoundations.org

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2002). Accepting threatening information: Self–Affirmation and the reduction of defensive biases. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(4), 119-123.

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.


  1. This is such a fascinating topic. I really like the three points you outlined. It’s a huge discussion that can incorporate psychology, sociology, philosophy, enmity/propoganda/dehumanization…even neuroscience has something to say about this. In a paper called “Red brain, blue brain: Evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans” (Schreiber et al. 2013), the researchers found actual differences in different parts of the brain being used when participants were faced with a risk-taking task. It had been believed up to this time that one’s parents and other early influences were responsible for a person’s political ideology – but this paper appears to squarely challenge this idea. The authors founds that measuring brain activity in two brain areas – the amygdala and the left posterior insula – accurately predicted political party (Democrat or Republican) 82.9 percent of the time (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130213173131.htm). This is more accurate than other methods of predicting political party (e.g. the political affiliation of the individual’s mother and father is about 69.5% accurate in predicting party affiliation). I am not suggesting that either side has something wrong with their brain; political rivals are unwise to chalk up philosophical disagreements to mere ‘stupidity.’ Rather, the neurodiversity viewpoint can probably help one appreciate that different ways of thinking are real and can literally be related to the way a person’s brain is wired. So let’s have some compassion for our differences. 🙂 (-: The real fun and joy begins when you make friends with people with different views and opinions. Without question, there is great potential to learn and grow from really hearing and trying to understand viewpoints that differ from one’s own leanings. Even agreeing to disagree can also be quite a nice thing to agree on!

    • Thanks for sharing that study! I definitely agree, it’s important to try to understand someone else’s perspective even if it’s different from our own. Also, even if the goal is to change someone else’s opinion, it’s important to figure out why the person formed that opinion in the first place (since just telling someone you think they’re wrong isn’t likely to change their opinion).

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