Testing the "Morality and (Mis)Perception Model of Polarization" Across Cultures and Contexts
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2023
- August 31 / 2025
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Kurt Gray
Institution The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

To measure and map polarization between and within societies, a project team led by Kurt Gray’s Deepest Beliefs Lab at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for the Science of Moral Understanding plans to develop and test the Morality and (Mis)Perception Model of Polarization.

The model suggests that polarization is ultimately grounded in moral disagreement. The team aims to leverage an emerging harm-based account of the moral mind to understand how moral disagreement initially occurs, and how this moral disagreement is exaggerated into toxic affective polarization (e.g., animosity toward one’s out-group). One key mechanism is harm blindness, the misperception that — unlike your own side — the other side is not motivated to safeguard society and its most vulnerable members.

Initial moral disagreement about specific issues (e.g., abortion) is inevitable in a pluralistic democracy. The team’s work suggests that this disagreement arises because people emphasize different recipients of harm (e.g., the vulnerability of pregnant women vs. fetuses). This initial difference in “morality” is transformed into affective polarization through mechanisms of “misperception” that exaggerate moral differences and then makes political opponents seem unlikeable and inhuman. 

The team’s research aims to help to build a holistic understanding of polarization by integrating diverse theories and measures of polarization, its drivers and its outcomes. They’ll use large-scale surveys and experimental studies across cultures and contexts to reveal the individual cognitions driving polarization, using data from the United States and Germany to help uncover both universal and culturally-specific aspects of polarization. They are also partnering with the practitioner organization One America Movement to test the model within the unique setting of polarized faith-based communities.

One key outcome of the project is to provide science and society with an overarching understanding of polarization, enabling other scientists and practitioners to develop targeted interventions designed to combat the toxicity of contemporary political discourse.

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