Polarization in society (division into sharply contrasting groups), can be based on race (e.g., White vs Black), nationality (Australians vs Immigrants), religion (Catholics vs Protestants in Northern Ireland), political ideology (conservatives vs progressives), or even a choice in temporary political contestation (Trump’s supporters vs Hillary’s supporters).
How does polarization develop?
The trajectory of polarization and conflict does not just happen all of a sudden, but rather goes through stages. Professor Fathali Moghaddam has outlined the three main stages of polarization:
Political elections are ripe grounds for polarization as the competition elections allows for each group to intentionally highlight differences that create the “us” vs “them” mentality. In this process biases such as a tendency to interpret evidence as being more robust if it is in line with prior beliefs are used to gather people’s support.
Information access and fake news
One process which has the potential to accelerate polarization is the distribution of fake news. During the 2016 US election campaign, hundreds of websites were published in order to strengthen support for one candidate and bring the opposing candidate down. Social media users also propagated a huge number of messages that distorted the facts to voters. However, this is not just a problem in the United States. In Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, a fake voting machine video was retweeted by thousands of social media users after being shared by a right-wing politician. This video was later found to be a hoax.
In Indonesia, a politician tweeted about seven containers in one of the ports which were allegedly storing ballot paper pre-marked with votes for one of the candidates. Through his twitter, this politician later asked the police to investigate the information. The tweet raised massive controversy and incited public debates. One group took the information to be fact, while the opposing party reported the politician to the police, accusing him of using technology to spread misinformation.
While it is easy to delete a tweet that has been shown to be false, the downstream effect of misinformation is more difficult to fix. It is also challenging to prevent the initial polarization that occurs over a specific issue from developing into more widespread and extreme polarization.
As explained by Professor Moghaddam, extreme polarization develops through extreme in-group cohesion. Ingroup cohesion exacerbates polarization as it creates “social bubbles” in which we only hear information that is in line with our group’s beliefs. Within this process, a closed mindset takes place within a group as a consequence of being bombarded with information with a partisanship bias, or even fake news. As the fake news provides increasing “evidence” of outgroup threat and ingroup superiority, each side becomes more wedded to its own distorted perspectives.
Preventing the effect of fake news
Stopping fake news from being spread is difficult, and some use it for their own political gain. But, what can people do to protect themselves from the unexpected effects of fake news?
We know from studies that education is can be an antidote to fake news. However, we also know that highly educated people can be fooled. For example, some educated people distributed fake news related to politics and religion in the Indonesian elections. Education is extraordinarily important as a buffer against hoaxes and fake news, but the educational process must encourage healthy skepticism for it to be effective. Without active, educated dissent from misinformation campaigns (even when these favour the ingroup), we can expect the cycle of polarization and mutual radicalization to continue in future.
- Susilo Wibisono
When groups of people actively help each other (“intergroup prosociality”), what is the driving force? Are all types of helping motivated by the same psychological processes? In a recent paper, we delved into these questions by reviewing what we know of intergroup prosociality from a psychological perspective
Benevolent support or political activism?
When we think of all the ways that people show concern for others, we may start listing things like donating to international aid campaigns, listening to stories of suffering with empathy, or marching in a rally to bring about more equitable conditions for a disadvantaged group. Do all of these stem from the same values or beliefs? In this paper, we argue that there are two different ways people engage in inter-group prosociality - benevolence and activism.
Benevolence aims to compassionately alleviate the suffering of others. Acts such as charitable giving, or listening empathetically to the painful experiences of others would fall under this category.
Activism aims to create change in social and political systems to bring about greater equality. The focus here is the recognition of harm and disadvantage brought on by systems, and working to challenge these systems through group-level action. Many types of collective action fall into this category.
This distinction forms the basis through which we view how groups of people engage in various forms of prosociality. But of course, there are complexities!
For example, how should charitable giving be categorised? – Is it benevolence, activism, or both?
While charitable giving has been mostly studied in a way that lends itself to the benevolence definition we provided, charitable giving can also be motivated by motives to bring about equality, and giving to charities that are most likely to bring about structural social change. This argument complicates our traditional view of charitable giving and presents evidence that charitable giving can be both!
And what about intergroup contact – What does it have to do with intergroup prosociality?
Intergroup contact refers to exchanges between individuals of two different groups, and when it is positive, it has been shown to reduce the prejudice of advantaged group members towards stigmatized groups. Positive contact could be argued to be associated with benevolence rather than activism.
Yet recent research on contact has shown that positive contact between advantaged and disadvantaged groups, while reducing the prejudice of advantaged group members, also weakens the disadvantaged groups’ motivations to engage in activism on their own behalf. In this way, contact can reinforce the inequality between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
So what is the solution? Is the choice between mobilizing the disadvantaged group or reducing the prejudice of advantaged groups? Not necessarily. Recent work shows that when the advantaged group acknowledges the inequality and explicitly supports social change, it promotes both groups’ activism as well as positive attitudes. This type of contact has been termed supportive contact.
Finally, is there a distinction between allyship and solidarity?
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, we make the argument that it might be useful to think about how the motives for the two are different. In Allyship, the advantaged group is helping the disadvantaged group because of some benefit to themselves, for example for their own political aims, to conform to their own group’s norms, or to act out their values. However, when one group stands in solidarity with another, it can mean that they feel identified with that group. In other words, allies might feel part of a larger group together with the people they are helping (“we are all Australian”, or “we all want gender equality”). If there are two different types of motives, we can look at which ones are more common, last longer, or are more likely to spur real change. For example, maybe allyship motives are more common, but solidarity motives are stronger and more likely to lead to social transformation!
The paper also highlights an exciting and emerging trend in solidarity research to move beyond advantaged and disadvantaged group dynamics, and look at how disadvantaged groups engage in solidarity with each other.
For those interested in intergroup relations, this paper details the many ways groups engage in prosociality with one and other. It provides a detailed review of the research and a helpful way to understand and distinguish between benevolence and activism when we consider the ways groups engage in helping with each other. We look forward to any feedback!
- Zahra Mirnajafi
This blog post is based on: Louis, W. R., Thomas, E., Chapman, C. M., Achia, T., Wibisoni, S., Mirnajafi, Z., & Droogendyk, L. (2019). "Emerging research on intergroup prosociality: Group members' charitable giving, positive contact, allyship, and solidarity with others." Social and Personality Psychology Compass 13(3): e12436.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.