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Do you get the feeling that political debate is increasingly polarised? Certainly in the country where I live, the UK, politics appears to be at an impasse. The impression I have is that the same factions seem to be stubbornly rehashing the same debates with little compromise. It is frustrating, quite boring and from a social science point of view a little perplexing.

But what if polarisation is entirely to be expected? And what if it is not the result of ignorance or small-mindedness, but a perfectly human response to our fallibilities and flaws? Some of the latest research shows us that one reason for the polarisation we see today comes down to a few, incredibly influential minorities.

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Social scientists have historically explained polarisation as the result of irrational thinking. Surely, any reasonable, although mis-informed, person will accept when they are mistaken, the argument goes. Someone who stubbornly sticks to their wrongly held beliefs when presented with evidence is, you would think, clearly acting irrationally.

Political polarisation is not simply a result of irrational thinking (Credit: Getty Images)

But a recently published study challenges that common-sense theory. In fact, polarisation could happen in populations of perfectly rational people when you consider the limitations of the human brain.

One issue with studying rational and irrational beliefs is that no human can be said to be completely rational. It is also hard to predict when someone might react rationally or irrationally, or to control that behaviour in an experiment. So, a group of researchers from the US, Japan, Belgium and South Korea worked with computer models of agents who they programmed to act either rationally or irrationally.

“These agents were assigned an opinion, but could change their opinion after interacting with other agents,” says Jiin Jung, co-author of the paper and researcher at Claremont Graduate University in California, US. If they were all acting rationally, you would expect them to share their opinions and sometimes to alter their views if they found that others’ arguments were stronger than their own.

The agents were made to behave rationally or irrationally by manipulating their memory. Some of the agents were given perfect recall, while others were given a more fallible memory.

People become more resistant to polarisation if they have longer memories (Credit: Getty Images)

“Those with unlimited memory could remember any type of argument from any perspective,” says Jung. “Those who could forget were split into some who randomly forgot and others who forgot weak arguments or old arguments.”

“Agents with unlimited memory did not become polarised,” says Jung. But no human has a perfectly infallible memory. What is more intersting is what happens when we account for the fact that our attention spans, memories and energy to debate can change.

“If we are rational with a limited memory span, that causes the bipolarisation of opinion in a group,” says Jung. “Even though we are completely rational, our society can become polarised because we forget the arguments of others.”

This research can help to guide how we approach talking about polarised groups, says Jung. When we meet someone who holds a different belief, we should try not to dismiss it as irrational. Instead of thinking that we need to “correct” their thinking or re-educate them, we could reflect on what might be affecting their judgement. Poor memory, stress, uncertainty, discrimination – all these things could be pushing people away from the norm.

Trying to "correct" people who disagree with us is unlikely to help the problem of polarisation (Credit: Getty Images)

Outsiders

We might all be guilty from time to time of lacking the energy or willpower to test our beliefs. So, if mostly-rational thinkers are vulnerable to polarisation, then what pushes them in this direction? Small minorities with a strong view can play a surprisingly large role, says Amber Gaffney, a social psychologist from Humboldt State University in California, US. But not in the way you might expect.  

“Lots of people don’t consider themselves extremists,” says Gaffney. “But they might have more in common than they realise. When the Tea Party had a larger influence, their more extreme messages were often too much for moderate conservatives. But moderate conservatives moved towards the Tea Party in other ways.”

Both Tea Party members and moderate conservatives identify as Republicans in the US. As a result, moderate conservatives may well see themselves as more like the Tea Party than the Democrats, even though moderate conservatives may share more in common with moderate Democrats. In this situation, the Democrats are the out-group – they are the outsiders.

One effect of the Tea Party's rhetoric was to pull moderate conservatives away from the centre ground (Credit: Getty Images)

“Adopting something from the fringes of your group allows you to pull your own group away from what you don’t want to become,” says Gaffney. “The Democrats were the out-group and the Republicans [unconsciously] used the Tea Party to pull away from them.”

The Tea Party’s rhetoric is extremely conservative. In an address to a large convention of followers of the movement, one Tea Party leader recited some of their shared concerns: “This did not begin when we voted for Obama; it started when we voted out school prayer; when we legalised abortion; when husbands and wives permit divorce to be an option and give up on their love for each other and marriage vows before God. These are just a few ways we have abandoned God and the principles that He created.”

You might not immediately change your attitude, but it weakens your other beliefs, meaning they might change later

Moderate conservatives might not agree with this stance. However, research shows that by associating with extreme minorities your opinions can change in surprising ways. Gaffney’s research builds on work conducted by William Crano, who established that a clear message, even if you do not agree with it, can be enough to move you on other topics.

In one of his studies, Crano observed minority groups of students who advocated against allowing gay people to serve in the military. The majority of students did not align themselves with the policy, but they became more conservative on other issues like gun control reform.

“Often when someone is on the fringes we don’t want to go along with them – we don’t want to align ourselves with minority positions because it pokes a hole in our thinking,” says Gaffney.

But, Crano suggests extreme opinions put pressure on your entire belief system. You might not immediately change your attitude, but it weakens your other beliefs, meaning they might change later.

Even if you do not agree with a group's message, it can still influence the way you think (Credit: Getty Images)

Recently in the UK, Scott Mann, a previously little-known member of parliament, tweeted this: “Every knife sold in the UK should have a GPS tracker fitted in the handle. It’s time we had a national database like we do with guns. If you’re carrying it around you had better have a bloody good explanation, obvious exemptions for fishing etc.” Cue a lot of people pointing out the flaws in this idea.

Although the idea of fitting every knife in the UK with a GPS tracker is probably a non-starter, this could be a good example of what Gaffney and Crano refer to. Most people might say that GPS trackers would not stop knife crime, but could this tweet be acting as a Trojan horse to shift people’s attitudes on related topics, such as street crime or policing?

Small is powerful

Persistence and consistency in support of minority opinions is key to being influential. “Minorities that have a consistent behaviour style or risk their own self-interest have the most influence,” says Jung. “When you think about Tibetan monks who burn themselves, the extreme nature of what they did shocks more moderate people. If I have a not-very-strong opinion and then I see someone behave like that, suddenly I think that maybe I am wrong and need to change my attitude.”

When people feel uncertain they use strong values to define themselves – Amber Gaffney

The size of the group is also important. Being small can be very useful. When groups are small they are more distinctive compared to large groups. Small groups might have one, clear message, where larger groups contain multiple voices sharing different messages This distinctiveness makes smaller groups more influential, particularly if they are very consistent in their views. Likewise, the more uncertainty there is in a population, the more influential a minority group becomes.

“When people feel uncertain they use strong values to define themselves,” says Gaffney. “When people are highly uncertain of themselves and their motivations, different types of leadership become more attractive, like autocratic leaders in democratic societies.” Authoritarian leaders often play on this uncertainty, says Gaffney, using rhetoric like “We’re losing who we are”.

When people feel uncertain they are more drawn to authoritarian leaders (Credit: Getty Images)

“It’s sad because when people are uncertain about their place in the world, they try to find a group that is very radical, that has an authoritarian leader that has a clear norm and clear boundaries,” says Jung. “When people are uncertain about who they are, positivity and negativity are less important – so they’re not necessarily thinking about whether their actions are good or bad.” This is particularly the case around marginalised groups, Jung adds. “Oppressed people see the majority as bad, so the minority must be good.”

But it is worth remembering that the same principles can be used to bring about positive social change. In fact, says Gaffney, some of the biggest positive social changes have been the result of minority groups with strong cohesion and a clear identity.

“When we see positive social change, it comes from a minority. Think about the civil rights movement, women’s vote,” says Gaffney. “They are all incredibly positive, but they started with minority groups – they were the outsiders working against the norm.”

We are all part of small sub-groups nested within complex networks in society. Extreme minorities can have both positive and negative impacts on the larger whole. And even when you dismiss someone’s radical idea as nonsense, remember that they might already have changed how you think.

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