Nov 28, 2022

How Empirical Research Can Help Decrease Polarization and Improve Human Flourishing

Our most critical problems require collective action and reducing polarization will be key to solving them.

By Eric Marshall and Virginia Cooper

Human flourishing depends on our ability to work together to achieve common goals. Unfortunately, humanity sometimes struggles to do this. People and groups can become pitted against one another, digging in their heels and pushing away those they see as opponents. External sociocultural factors such as misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories — the detritus of the internet and modern media — only exacerbate this process of polarization and undermine our collective ability to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, from climate change to poverty to war. By the same token, if we can understand the internal mechanisms that lead to polarization and interrupt them, we can improve humanity’s ability to overcome such existential threats.

Sir John Templeton believed that competition is a good thing, and indeed, in many contexts this is self-evidently the case. Competition can help the best ideas, technologies and processes rise to the top. Yet too much disagreement — competition run amok — can metastasize into polarization and a vicious cycle whereby opposing parties move further and further apart with each encounter. When people get too far apart, they cannot work effectively together anymore, and this is when we see hostilities and dehumanization of the other side build up. We’ve seen this time and again in recent years in virtually every sphere of society. We think of polarization in its broadest sense as a social force which drives groups apart and, at its most intense, fuels animosity and hatred.

Oftentimes, activists and practitioners engage with a particular instance of polarization and seek to combat it, but without a clear, empirical understanding of what causes polarization. Simultaneously, many academic researchers study polarization in isolation, disconnected from the efforts of their peers and the practitioners who possess a wealth of on the ground experience and who ultimately must translate research into action. As part of an effort to disrupt polarization, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Listening and Learning in a Polarized World initiative aims to study the causes and social processes of polarization and then implement this research through real world applications and by bridging gaps between researchers and practitioners.

This initiative intends to fund research into the causes and processes that drive polarization, independent of specific political or social issues which may be mired in polarization. As part of this effort, researchers will seek to understand what the universal traits of polarization are, and separate them from unique social, cultural or political triggers which may be at play at any given place and time. Ideally, this research can aid us in developing techniques, tools and practices that can be deployed to combat polarization across societies and cultures, regardless of the particular sources of division.

For this research to be successful, we need to be able to reliably understand the scale and intensity of polarization in various different contexts. We must be able to recognize the indicators of polarization at an early stage, when we can still disrupt it. And we must develop a deep understanding of the underlying internal mechanisms that drive polarization as well as of how individuals become polarized due to their role in social networks. Can we identify and model the mechanisms of polarization, internal to individuals, their biology, and their social networks, and how it plays out across cultures? Once this baseline understanding has been established, the real work begins.

While studying and disrupting polarization may feel somewhat abstract (after all, aren’t war, famine and environmental degradation the real problems?), it is an absolute necessity if humanity will be able to come together to overcome such collective obstacles. Yet this research cannot exist in a vacuum from the real-world challenges we face; instead, the research should be conducted with an eye towards applications in specific problem areas, such as climate change. The process may be messy at times, but the researchers will be working with real inputs from the get-go, rather than in isolated, controlled environments that do not mirror the real world.

If this research is successful, we will be able to depolarize individuals and situations based on a scientific understanding of the internal mechanisms at play and their unique cultural sensitivities. By ensuring this research is truly global from the very beginning — rather than focused on western, wealthy nations as has often been the case prior to now — we can develop interventions, innovations and preventative measures that can be applied universally.

Most importantly, researchers and practitioners in the space can cross-pollinate each other. Techniques that are successful in the climate space or conflict zones may be useful in other areas, for instance. Humanity’s problems are multifaceted, and polarization arises in many areas of human endeavor. Any efforts to study and combat polarization, then, must be interdisciplinary. Only by breaking down artificial boundaries and looking for shared principles can we bring people together in pursuit of shared goals and human flourishing.