Political Polarization: Why We All Just Can't Get Along

Dylan Minor's new research explains how political polarization works and why we have lost the ability to compromise.
  • 30 Sep 2015
  • By Roberta Holland

A recent study suggests that America’s political polarization is driven more by incorrect beliefs and stereotypes about the other side than distaste with those people.

That should be good news for those wondering how to knit polarized sides together, or at least nudge them toward compromise. Incorrect beliefs are easier to overcome than an ingrained lack of trust. However, as the researchers later demonstrate, even that remedy may prove hard to achieve.

Dylan Minor, a visiting assistant professor of business administration in the Harvard Business School Strategy unit, and co-author Pablo Hernandez of New York University, dive into the topic in their working paper Political Identity and Trust.

“Our biggest headline finding is that it seems that it’s beliefs that drive trust, not taste"

If it seems we are a nation of opposites more than ever, we are. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2014, political polarization of the American public has increased, and partisan antagonism is "deeper and more extensive than at any point in the last two decades."

“When we look at people’s political identities, we know there is huge polarization in America,” Minor says. “But a fundamental question is, are these being driven by what economists would call taste—‘I like red people and don’t like green people’—or is it driven by beliefs—‘it’s not that I don’t like them per se, I just don’t think we can trust them.’ Those are two completely different reasons that observationally result in the same thing—‘I don’t trust them’—but has very different policy implications and takeaways for practitioners.”

IN BELIEF WE TRUST

Minor says the overarching issue is what leads people to trust one group over another, which has implications for business as well as the political arena.

Counter to previous studies, his team’s results indicated that a particular group that participants belonged to was less important than how trustworthy they thought the other group was.

“Our biggest headline finding is that it really seems that it’s actually beliefs that drive trust, not taste. That’s actually good news because it’s harder to change people’s taste preferences than it is beliefs,” says Minor, joking that he’s been trying to change his daughter’s food tastes for years.

Minor used a survey pool of 7,000 pre-screened individuals across the country that were obtained by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Minor says it was illuminating to use “regular” subjects as opposed to undergrads, who aren’t necessarily representative of a broad swath of the United States. Equally important was using real money in the trust exercise, he adds.

The online survey began by getting a baseline of how “other-regarding” the individuals were. Participants, identified by political party in Kellogg’s pre-screening but not yet told the survey had anything to do with politics, were asked to divide $5 between themselves and another anonymous participant. Results were virtually the same: on average Republicans kept $3.72 and Democrats kept $3.67.

The next three questions added party affiliation into the mix for most players. They were told whether their anonymous partners were Democrats or Republicans, and Minor shuffled groupings so some were paired with partners from the same party and some with partners from the other party. A control group played without knowing their anonymous partners’ political leanings.

In the game, Player A could keep $5 and give $5 to Player B, or pass the decision to Player B, who then could choose to give $10 to each player or keep $14 and give nothing to Player A. Next participants were asked what they would do if they were Player B and the decision were passed to them. They then were asked to guess what percentage of the group they were paired with (Republicans or Democrats) would prove trustworthy. If they guessed the correct decile, they were given an additional $3.

The results: Democrats trusted other Democrats 63 percent of the time (by passing the decision) and trusted Republicans 40 percent of the time. Republicans trusted other Republicans 58 percent of the time and trusted Democrats 66 percent of the time.

“What we find, at least for political identity, is that there’s this stereotype that Democrats are more trustworthy than Republicans—and that belief was held by both Democrats and Republicans,” Minor says.

Predictions of how trustworthy Player B would prove to be were similar – 63 percent of Republicans believed their partner would be trustworthy while Democrats predicted 62 percent would. Both wildly underestimated. The actual reciprocation rate of Player B was 93 percent for Republicans and 85 percent for Democrats.

Minor and Hernandez then did another treatment to try to manipulate participants’ beliefs. This group was told the actual data on reciprocation rates from the previous rounds, then asked the same sequence of questions, including what percentage would prove trustworthy. The only real bump provided by the disclosure was in Democrats paired with Democrats, who increased their prediction to 76 percent. The rest of the predictions stayed flat or even decreased.

“We were shocked about how pessimistic people were in their trusting versus how they should be. It was pervasive. Again, even after we told them the truth, they moved some, but they still were much less trusting than they should be,” says Minor, who hopes to delve further into how to effectively shift beliefs in future research.

TRUST IN THE WORKPLACE

The unduly pessimistic predictions in the political survey sparked Minor’s curiosity about whether the same disconnect exists in business transactions. A manager isn’t going to delegate a task if he or she doesn’t trust the subordinate to get the job done.

“If those beliefs are that far off in other kinds of settings, then actually that means there are some gross inefficiencies where transactions or relationships are not being consummated because of an erroneous level of trust that is not founded on the data,” Minor says.

Companies would be wise to learn what forms the level of trust others have in them, he says.

“The first step is identifying, whatever field you’re in, which are the more trustworthy (fields), and if you’re numbered among those, hallelujah. But if you’re not, then you have to think about some ways to improve that.”

Engaging in meaningful corporate social responsibility can boost a company’s trust factor. Partnering with a company in a more trusted field or employing groups of workers with trustworthy reputations can help a firm take on that higher reputation identity, he says.

Companies also can boost their employees’ trust with CSR efforts and transparency on the many metrics they have access to these days. Minor cites the example of Sears, which sends a weekly survey to workers asking them to rate how things are going.

“Sears being a huge company now has this treasure trove of data, and is really finding out that this stuff is really predictive, as simple as it is,” Minor says.

Companies also can drill down into their workforce to look at the salient identities, like by job title or business unit, and corresponding trust reputations. Minor also is interested in finding average trust reputations within the C-suite, such as CEOs versus CFOs, which could affect who the front person should be with investors, employees, or in a crisis. By learning the trustworthiness reputation of different groups or positions, companies can determine to what extent the beliefs are true and to what extent they can move them.

“The idea is the more we can have trusting transactions and relationships and exchanges, that’s going to be better for everyone,” Minor says.

About the Author

Roberta Holland is a writer based in Boston.

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