How (Many) Descriptive Claims about Political Polarization Exacerbate Polarization

Journal of Social and Political Psychology (forthcoming)
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Recently, researchers and reporters have made a wide range of claims about the distribution, nature, and societal impact of political polarization. Here I offer reasons to believe that, even when they are correct and prima facie merely descriptive, many of these claims have the highly negative side effect of increasing political polarization. This is because of the interplay of two factors that have so far been neglected in the work on political polarization, namely that (1) people have a tendency to conform to descriptive norms (i.e., norms capturing (perceptions of) what others commonly do, think, or feel), and (2) claims about political polarization often convey such norms. Many of these claims thus incline people to behave, cognize, and be affectively disposed in ways that contribute to social division. But there is a silver lining. People’s tendency to conform to descriptive norms also provides the basis for developing new, experimentally testable strategies for counteracting political polarization. I outline three.

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Uwe Peters
Utrecht University


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