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Why Political Polarization Grows—And How to Reduce It

The intensity of the problem is relational more than logical or ideological.

Key points

  • Polarization grows when people talk only to those who mostly agree with them.
  • Informational influences, social influences, and gaining confidence can increase group extremism.
  • Talking in small groups and one-to-one with those with different views can reduce polarization.

Fears of extreme polarization are repeated widely these days. Yet the process of polarization is one that can be understood and managed. Rather than wringing our hands and wondering what we did to cause this, we can unplug polarization with a few actions within our control.

It helps to understand that polarization is often driven by people with high-conflict personalities who emotionally engage in "splitting," seeing people and groups as all-good or all-bad and intensely communicating this to others. This is particularly a characteristic of Cluster B personalities, especially narcissistic and antisocial. When they get into leadership positions, they often polarize groups as a way of increasing their power.1 But group members can overcome this.


Why It Grows

Studies show that when two opposing groups talk and listen to only those within their group, they not only remain polarized but become even more so. For example, many years ago, three researchers organized small groups of citizens in Colorado to discuss current political issues within their group. One group was typical of residents of the city of Boulder, known for being liberal, and another group was typical of people in Colorado Springs, known for being conservative. They had them discuss three issues within their group: climate change, affirmative action, and same-sex civil unions (before gay marriage was approved). They wrote down their views individually and anonymously beforehand.

The result was the following: “People from Boulder became a lot more liberal on all three issues. By contrast, people from Colorado Springs became a lot more conservative. The effect of group deliberations was to shift individual opinions toward extremism…. There’s a big lesson here. Group deliberations often makes not only groups but also individuals more extreme, so much so that they will state more-extreme views privately and anonymously.”2

How Does This Occur?

These researchers drew three conclusions from this study and others. First, that “informational influence” makes a group with an initial predisposition on a subject reinforce their original positions with more supporting arguments. Second, “social influences” mean that group members will adjust their views to fit more with the group leader’s views and/or the views of the majority of group members. Third, at first many members may be tentative in their opinions, but as they “gain confidence” they tend to become more extreme in their views. All put together, their slightly different viewpoints tend to come together in a stronger consensus.3

How Can Polarization Be Reduced?

In 2019, a university study brought together 526 voters from around the country who were representative geographically and politically. They spent a long weekend at a resort outside Dallas, Texas, discussing a variety of policy position papers. The participants and the policy papers were not identified by political parties and partisan words were removed as much as possible.

The result was the following: “Over four days, mostly in small groups, they debated foreign policy, health care, immigration, the economy and the environment…. Often, the language voters used was personal rather than political…. In fact, some people did change their minds…. Voters at the event on both the left and the right appeared to edge toward the center…. Many participants described their surprise at finding common ground with one another…. Everywhere there were unlikely pairings of people, just talking, with no moderators.”4

Apparently, by talking in small groups and one-to-one with people with very different or opposite viewpoints, they saw each other as human beings with personal stories of being impacted by various policies. While most people didn’t completely change their points of view, they tended to soften them and move toward the center from these discussions.


Putting these two studies together, they suggest that we human beings are very group-oriented and tend to edge toward each other’s points of view, especially as they are repeated. They also suggest that personal conversations in small groups or even one-to-one help reduce the emotional distance that people have when they only talk or listen to people with the same points of view.

If we want to avoid or reduce political polarization, it should help to listen to many different points of view—including on the radio, television, and through social media—rather than just our favorites. While we all enjoy being with like-minded people, for the sake of creating a peaceful future it will benefit us to occasionally listen to and talk to those we disagree with on as personal a level as possible.


1. Bill Eddy, Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths--And How We Can Stop! (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019.)

2. Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2015), 82.

3. Sunstein and Hastie, Wiser, 83-84.

4. Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy, "These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent a Weekend Together." New York Times, October 2, 2019.

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