Why se study polarization
Oct 25, 2023

Why We Study Polarization

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Listening and Learning in a Polarized World aims to uncover the drivers of social conflict.

By Eric Marshall and Virginia Cooper

Divergent opinions, beliefs, and understandings are defining aspects of a free human society. Opposing points of view naturally lead to polarization as groups sort themselves and argue for their own distinct points of view.

Sir John Templeton, founder of Templeton World Charity Foundation, believed that “the free and friendly competition of ideas” enables the truth to “more easily emerge.” This is critical for societal progress because “humans flourish best in a system of life that stimulates novelty, innovativeness, and individuality and that rewards new approaches, new concepts, new inventions, and new and better ways of thinking about life and its ultimate ends and concerns.” While diversity of ideas, opinions, beliefs, and interests of a group or society is usually a healthy driver of advancement, extreme polarization often restricts free and friendly competition of ideas and can therefore be a powerful barrier to achieving societal progress and human flourishing.

While polarization is often considered a negative trait, it can be helpful, so long as it does not become too extreme and people are still able to engage in listening and learning. As inhabitants of a planet of different geographies, regions, cultures, religions, and nations, we face critical existential challenges ranging from climate change to the health of democracy. Consequently, it’s critical that we pay attention to polarization, and study its effects and causes.

Understanding what drives polarization and how it can be harnessed for good is key to the flourishing of humanity and is the reason why Templeton World Charity Foundation funds research on the subject via its Listening and Learning in a Polarized World initiative. The way we collectively come together around what we value, what we believe and know to be true, ultimately determines whether humanity will be able to face existential challenges. If societies are too polarized, listening and learning can’t take place, and progress is consequently slowed or prevented all together.

How do we Study Polarization?
The study of polarization is essentially about social relationships, connecting the behavior of individuals. It occurs whenever a group of people — ranging in size from very large groups or populations to small groups or subgroups — start separating around disagreements about an issue, idea, opinion, value, or belief. Polarization is essentially the bifurcation of groups into camps — us and them.

Polarization, if it’s coupled with humility and open-mindedness in a way that promotes listening and learning, can support positive social progress, leading to breakthroughs and new ideas that would not come about within an intellectual monoculture. We see this at work in functional democracies and within the context of scientific investigations that make use of collaborative approaches such as adversarial collaboration.

When Polarization Goes Wrong
Much of the research we support on polarization will focus on what happens when it gets out of control. This requires understanding not just why groups become polarized, but why the environment can become so extreme as to prevent listening and learning in a productive, substantive way.

There are two primary ways in which polarization plays out. The first is largely cognitive in nature, when people move towards extreme ideas, perspectives, ideologies, values and worldviews. People have a tendency to view the other side as more extreme than they really are, and so in a very polarized society, we consistently fail to accurately understand their position.

This initially cognitive difference often becomes problematic when it is coupled with forces of social separation and identity. For example, this can become particularly challenging when a new piece of evidence comes in between two camps that often separates them further as they embrace their extreme positions even more strongly, regardless of whether or not the evidence is logically contradictory to their position.

The second type of problematic polarization, which tends to be inherently bad, is affective polarization, where people dislike “them” and like “us.” This category of polarization includes a lack of respect or dehumanization of the other side and hostility towards them. So, it’s not just about disagreeing with them or differing over an idea or opinion but actively believing the other side is entirely unlike us. At its most extreme, affective polarization of this type can lead to events such as violence and genocide.

How Studying Polarization Helps Us
Understanding why groups and societies become polarized, and which factors increase or decrease polarization, may help us to one day identify and use specific levers to increase or decrease polarization within groups. Polarizing or depolarizing groups — whether departments in companies or the political landscape of countries — can help generate greater innovation in rigid and unresponsive institutions or reduce conflict in places where people have embraced extreme ideologies. Eventually, we may be able to depolarize situations before they boil over into harmful or deadly conflict.

How this is done will vary greatly depending on cultures, countries, education levels and other factors. This research will require multiple phases, beginning with the development of theoretical models of the mechanisms driving polarization and depolarization and their associated key measurable indicators. Subsequent research phases are expected to support the measurement and mapping of polarization cross-culturally around the globe. One hope is that this will lead to increased understanding of which mechanisms of polarization function universally and which function contextually dependent upon cultural factors. With progress in this base understanding, the ultimate goal is to increase understanding required to develop effective methods to achieve the more ideal state of the free competition of ideas via intellectual humility and open mindedness that Sir John Templeton once envisioned.

This year, we launched and ran our first request for proposals (RFP) for the LLPW initiative. In our development of the initiative, we learned that there is still much good work to be done to better understand the mechanisms of polarization and depolarization. And so this was the focus of our RFP.

We also placed a large focus on Open research and collaboration. We placed extra care and effort on making this funding call transparent, equitable and accessible to a global audience. We did this by creating a detailed application guidance document, hosting multiple webinars, conducting a double blind review process, and selecting the proposals through a partial lottery. These efforts resulted in registrations from 36 countries across 6 continents, and a cohort representing 8 countries conducting research in more than twice that amount.

Some proposals for this initial funding opportunity proposed research to uncover the differences and similarities in how people in varied cultures and contexts think, feel, communicate, and act in the face of polarizing forces. For example, what can we learn about how different cultures deal with misperceptions, social media, and sources of information?

Other projects look at how this is not just a matter of logic and discerning the truth. Why do we believe things that aren’t true? How do uncertainty and the power of extremes color our responses?

Finally, what do we know about how to move toward the more ideal state of free competition of ideas that Sir John imagined? What does high-quality, effective listening look like? How can our initial expectations and learning goals set us on a course towards a better outcome? And, how can we develop and sustain scalable cooperation?

Even though these may appear to be distinct research questions, a kickoff meeting with the cohort of grantees validated the need for collaborative learning across projects. Organic enthusiasm was demonstrated for opportunities to learn from others about both content and method. ICOR (Incentivizing Collaborative and Open Research) has worked with us to plan for structured support of grantees in achieving a collaborative research network which is grounded in best practices of open research.


See the projects funded as a result of the first RFP here.


This article was edited by Benjamin Reeves, a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at BenjaminReeves.com or follow him on Twitter.