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The social incentives hypothesis of political belief polarization

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The political left and right disagree not only over questions of value, but, also, over questions of fact—over what is true “out there” in society and the world. Surprisingly, a large body of survey data collected in the US during the past decade suggests that this disagreement tends to be greatest among the most educated and most cognitively sophisticated opposing partisans. In other words, the data indicate that these individuals display the greatest political polarization in their factual beliefs. One hypothesis for this polarization contends that human cognition is biased to form beliefs that correctly signal to peers and important others whose “side” one is on—because failing to signal as such can incur significant material costs in the form of e.g., lost social support and ostracism. These incentives are understood to produce the above polarization pattern because cognitively sophisticated partisans are better equipped to reason about and discredit politically uncongenial evidence; thus, causing greater polarization in their factual beliefs. In this talk, I will present data from an ongoing project that speaks to this hypothesis. First, I will present an analysis of survey data from Europe that examines whether the above polarization pattern generalizes outside of the US and to a novel and politically contested domain; immigration. In this analysis, I also characterize the nature of any such polarization, and examine how it has changed over time. Second, I will present two randomized experiments that investigate a candidate, individual-level cognitive mechanism purported to explain widening belief polarization conditional on education and cognitive sophistication.

Ben Tappin is a PhD student in the department of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works on understanding the factors that shape peoples’ political beliefs and behaviour, such as their preferences, identities and prior experiences. He is also interested in experimental design, statistics and open science. From April, Ben will be working as a postdoc in David Rand’s lab at MIT on topics related to misinformation and belief change in politics.

This talk is part of the Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) series.

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