Political polarization real and imagined: What do we get most wrong about our political opponents and does it matter?

Monday, March 13, 2023 (3:30 PM – 5:00 PM)

Anne E. Wilson

Professor of Psychology
Wilfrid Laurier University

Political polarization characterized by increasing dislike, even hatred, of opponent party members has risen to a fever pitch in contemporary American society. However, a surprising degree of common ground may be obscured by an illusory conviction that most opponents hold extreme and noxious views. I describe my lab’s research considering how the contemporary media and social media ecosystem selects for and amplifies the most extreme and threatening exemplars of opponents, fueling partisans’ caricatured views of the other side and producing a false polarization that outstrips real divisions. We consider the downstream consequences of these misperceptions, including animosity, refusal to engage with opponents, hesitation to voice ingroup dissent, and acceptance of anti-democratic tactics. We also examine ways to mitigate these effects and disrupt the cycle of polarization. Beginning with the insight that extreme voices tend to be disproportionately active, visible, and shared on social media (contributing to overestimations of the prevalence of noxious views), we examine whether exposure to ingroup dissenters who challenge their co-partisans’ extreme views online can mitigate these effects. We find that exposure to a single extreme tweet substantially increased opponents’ prevalence overestimates (assumptions that the fringe view is widespread). Next, we examined whether exposure to one or several moderate, dissenting tweets attenuated misperceptions and mitigated the cycle of hostility they provoke.

Anne E. Wilson is a professor in the Psychology Department at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is an expert on individual and collective identity over time, with a recent focus on intergroup processes underlying political polarization. She received her PhD in social psychology from the University of Waterloo in 2000, is a former Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology, and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Successful Societies program.

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