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Written by:
Paul Holland
09 Dec 2022

Trinity Hall hosted a Polarization seminar this week, co-hosted by Fellow Dr Lee De-Wit. Here he reflects on the startling facts discussed.

In the 1960s around 5% of Republicans and Democrats in the US said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other political party. In 2019 this had risen to 35% of Republicans, and 45% of Democrats. 

This was just one of the fascinating facts around polarisation presented by Professor Cass Sunstein exploring the causes and manifestations of polarisation in a panel discussion at Trinity Hall.

This more emotional opposition to the other side is known as “affective polarisation”, which Cass distinguished from ideological polarisation: a disagreement about substantive political issues, and false polarisation: a falsely exaggerated perception of the other sides positions or motivations. 

Cass highlighted that one of the drivers of polarisation is the way in which we draw on different moral values, such as the conservatives focus on loyalty. This was further illustrated by work highlighting that conservatives are more likely to support policies if they are framed as supporting local causes, whereas liberals are more likely to support policies if they are framed as supporting universal causes. 

Following Professor Sunstein’s talk, a panel discussion was hosted by Professor Lucia Reisch from the El Erian Institute of Behavioural Science. 

On the panel, Professor Sander van der Linden discussed his lab’s research in inoculating people against misinformation by providing people with a “misinformation” vaccine that helps people to spot, and defend themselves from the strategies used by merchants of misinformation online. 

David Young discussed work from his Polarisation Tracker with MHP Group, which has highlighted that whilst there is substantial polarisation between parties, there can also be large polarisation effects within parties, such that Corbyn and Starmer supporters can sometimes dislike each other more than they dislike more moderate conservatives. 

Finally Lisa-Maria Tanase discussed individual differences in the susceptibility to polarisation, highlighting that some people are more likely to think in absolute “us and them” terms than other people, and that this tendency to think the other side are one homogenous group that cannot change can reinforce polarisation.

Sander van der Linden highlighted the importance of humour in tackling misinformation and polarisation, and illustrated one of the interventions used in their lab that replays the now famous Star Wars meme between Anakin and Obi-Wan. 

Anakin: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!”

Obi-Wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

This event was jointly hosted by the El Erian Institute for Behavioural Science, and the Cambridge Overcoming Polarisation initiative funded by the World Templeton foundation. 

Words by Dr Lee de-Wit, Staff Fellow (Psychology). For more on Dr de-Wit visit the departmental website.

Image: Dr Cass Sunstein presenting at Trinity Hall