Breaking the polarization cycle: Equipping children from diverse cultural contexts to flexibly integrate contrasting ideas by harnessing the cultural and contextual mechanisms which lead to polarized beliefs during development
TWCF Number
Project Duration
November 1 / 2023
- October 31 / 2025
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Big Questions
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Sarah Pope-Caldwell
Institution Max Planck Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaften e.V.

How do dimensions of our cultural environments contribute to polarization? What cognitive changes in childhood lead to polarized thinking? 

A project directed by Sarah Pope-Caldwell at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology aims to answer questions probing the nature of the cognitive, contextual, and cultural mechanisms leading to polarization using an innovative combination of developmental and cross-cultural approaches. Across three studies, the project team will measure when and how inflexible beliefs are formed, and what motivates — or suppresses — their revision. They will recruit participants (ages 4-14 and adults) from three diverse cultures: Germans from a small, urban center in Germany; Bandongo fisher-farmers; and BaYaka hunter-gatherers from a small, remote village in the Republic of the Congo.

Study 1 will assess key cognitive mechanisms underlying inflexible belief formation and revision. Study 2 will take a closer look at contextual drivers of polarization, such as from whom a belief is learned, how strongly it is supported, and the group-membership of who is supporting it. Study 3 will focus on specific cultural mechanisms driving between-group variation observed in Aims 1 and 2.

The team expects children’s belief formation and revision to undergo substantial changes over the course of development, aligning with similar shifts in cognitive flexibility skills. They also predict that belief formation will be strongest when information is learned from an adult representing an institution or an in-group member, or when only one-sided endorsements are provided. By contrast, they expect belief revision to be greatest when the initial belief is acquired from a peer or out-group member, or when supporting evidence is balanced.

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