Tag Archives: Polarization

Political polarization is on the rise around the globe, fueled by inequality

The world is more politically divided today than at any point in the last five decades, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s not just where you live; people across the world are more entrenched in their political views, less open to differing ones, and identify themselves more strongly with the political movement they associate with. New research led by researchers at the University of St Andrews examines the drivers behind this increase in polarization, and what we can do to bridge the gaps again.

Tightening the ranks

“We know that people have been becoming more politically polarized over time, for example in the US, but we don’t know exactly why political identity is becoming so important,” says Dr. Alexander Stewart of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, lead author of the study. “We tried to understand this by developing a game theoretic model for the cultural evolution of party identity and comparing it to data.

“We found that if there is animosity or conflict between other types of identity groups, such as different racial groups, people will tend to shift their political identities over time to match up with their racial identity, leading to political polarization. This happens because it reduces conflict within a party. Factors such as inequality, which lead to greater animosity between identity groups, can trigger this process.”

The authors explain that populist movements — such as Brexit in the UK and the Trump campaign in the USA, — despite starting with support from ordinary citizens, over time develop strong associations with political identities and foster antagonism with opposing political movements. You’ve probably been able to see that unfolding in real-time, no matter which side of the political divide you yourself fall into.

But why does this process happen, and what drives it? The authors report that it comes down to the various social issues that fuel these movements in the first place. In the United States, for example, the Trump campaign catered to and was thus fueled, in part, racist sentiments among voters.

Addressing the rising tide of political polarization requires that we address these underlying issues first, and the greater overall issue of social inequality, the team notes. But that by itself will not be enough; the next step is for all political actors to take an active stance against these growing divisions. Those leading have to ask those that follow them to cooperate and find common ground even to those of opposing political sentiments.

The findings are based on a series of mathematical and computational models that the team — with members from the Universities of St Andrews, Princeton, and Pennsylvania — have run. These simulations examined how political attitudes and identities shifted over time in relation to growing inequality in our societies.

The results can be extrapolated to give us some insight into the rise of populist parties or movements that paint themselves as being “against the elites”, including supporters of Trump in the USA, Modi in India, Le Pen in France, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the Brexit movement in the UK.

“We found in the US for example that racial polarization expressed by voters has declined while political polarization between Republicans and Democrats has increased, and political parties have become increasingly sorted along racial lines,” Dr. Stewart adds. “This suggests that antagonism between racial groups has shifted to become associated with political identities over time.”

The team also attempted to introduce various conditions into their simulations to test for possible ways to reduce political polarization. One of the methods they tested was wealth distribution; their conclusion was that while such measures (attempts to reduce social inequality in all its forms) can set the groundwork, they can’t take us all the way. By themselves, they are not enough to reverse polarization. In order to realistically achieve this, people need to be called to action against it, the team explains.

“To reverse polarization you must first remove the conditions that helped create it (i.e., reduce inequality) and then engage in ‘coordinated efforts’ to change attitudes e.g., signaling by political elites in the form of bipartisan cooperation or improved rhetoric about the ‘other side’,” Dr. Stewart concludes.

The paper “Inequality, identity, and partisanship: How redistribution can stem the tide of mass polarization,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Economic inequality and decline fracture society, says a new study

New research at the Princeton University sheds light on how economic hardship and inequality can stoke polarization among social groups. According to the findings, such divisions keep festering even after financial conditions improve.

Image credits Paolo Trabattoni.

We’ve obviously been having a populist problem lately, and it is in no way limited to the US. A key driver of such movements has always been dissatisfaction with how things are being carried out right now, or feelings of anger at the perceived wrongdoings of the elites. But economic hardship also plays a large role in shaping such social woes. Worse yet, the divides seem to persist over time and promote inter-group conflicts.

Not enough to go around

“Times arise when national unity is needed, like we’re seeing now with COVID-19, but we shouldn’t wait for a public health crisis or war to bring people together” says Nolan McCarty, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and lead author of the paper.

“Policymakers and those in government should act now by investing in and protecting social safety nets that can prevent widening social and political divisions.”

The paper explores the theory that social polarization (or ‘tribalism’) between different groups has the tendency to rise during times of economic hardship. Under this theory, overall economic decline, rising inequality, and social conflict come hand-in-hand.

McCarty, together with Alexander Stewart of the University of Houston and Joanna Bryson of the Hertie School in Berlin developed a computer model meant to test the theory. This was built starting from models meant to explore evolution and game theory, but the team designed it to look at people’s willingness to interact with members outside of their own social group. Based on the findings, the authors argue that strengthening our social safety nets can help reduce this type of social conflict.

All of this, however, hinges on a few assumptions that the team baked into their model. The first is that an individual’s economic standing is tied to both interactions with others as well as the general health of the economy. The second assumption was that people tend to take after successful people, mimicking their behavior — which can thus spread through large areas of the public. Lastly, they modeled in-group interactions to be generally less risky with lower rewards, and those with out-group individuals to be riskier and more rewarding.

What the team expected to see was a shift in preference from out-group interactions during good times to in-group interactions during times of economic hardship, as people hedge their bets and avoid risk. Overall, this would lead to a sharp decline in interactions across groups. The results matched their expectations.

Our understanding so far is that economic shocks tend to lead to a rising of far-right movements that cash in on public frustrations by vilifying other groups. High levels of inequality, on the other hand, work to favor groups on the left, who will seek wealth redistribution. However, the model didn’t find proof of these mechanisms — but it did find that all people, in general, become less likely to interact with members from other social groups when times get tough. This, in turn, leads to everyone getting poorer, as in-group interactions tend to generate less value.

“Rather than continue the unproductive debate over whether ‘economic anxiety’ or group conflict is most responsible for our deeply divided politics, scholars should spend more effort considering the debilitating feedback between economics and identity,” said McCarty.

The paper “Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline,” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Cooperation and polarization have the same root, study finds

Could civilization and nasty political debates on social media be borne from the same source? One study, surprisingly, found that it may be true.

Image via Pixabay.

Ask a thousand people what they think humanity’s greatest invention ever is and you’ll get a wealth of answers. ‘Fire’ would probably be mentioned often, along with a few others such as ‘the wheel’, ‘antibiotics’, or ‘food delivery’. They’re all wonderful mentions and definitely helped shape society into what it is today, but they only work in a very specific context — which, in my view, is our actual greatest invention.

I’m talking about the division of labor.

A new study using an ant-based model, however, suggests that it may also have a dark side. The same processes that made the division of labor possible, the team believes, are also driving political and social polarization, which are seen as destructive, destabilizing factors in society.

Ours with ours, yours with yours

“Our findings suggest that division of labor and political polarization — two social phenomena not typically considered together — may actually be driven by the same process,” said Christopher Tokita, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, the study’s lead author. “Division of labor is seen as a benefit to societies, while political polarization usually isn’t, but we found that the same dynamics could theoretically give rise to them both.”

Division of labor is the process by which individuals in a community specialize in different tasks and exclude others. Overall, specialists can perform their respective tasks much more efficiently than generalists, and through trade, this improves the wellbeing of the community. A village that has a doctor, a craftsman, maybe a hunter, and some farmers would be a much better place to live in than one in which every individual had to grow their own food, heal their own diseases, produce their own goods, and hunt for themselves. If you’re into economics and familiar with the concept of comparative advantage, you have a pretty good idea of how the division of labor works.

Together with co-author Corina Tarnita, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, Tokita added two forces known to drive political polarization to existing models describing how the division of labor arises in an anthill. The authors report finding a feedback loop between these two forces that resulted both in specialized workers and polarized social networks. These two, the findings suggest, go hand-in-hand.

“It suggests that maybe there’s a common process underlying the organization of societies,” Tokita said.

The forces this paper looked into are “social influence”, which is the tendency of individuals to take on traits or mindsets from those they interact with, and “interaction bias”, which basically says that people like to interact with others they resemble. The researchers combined these with a “response threshold” model of ant social dynamics, in which ants choose their activities based on which need meets a critical internal threshold. Under this model, if two ants both check the food stores and the colony’s young, but one of the ants has a lower worry threshold for hunger and the other for the health of the larvae, they’d each seek to address their major individual worry.

Over time social influence and interaction bias strengthened in-group connections and weakened out-group ones, the team found. This made one of the ants interact more with its hunger-sensitive peers and become a forager, and the other with its larvae-sensitive peers, becoming a nursing ant.

However, herein lies the proverbial rub. The same dynamics also led to a wider and wider gulf between forager, nurses, and other groups (partisanship or tribalism) — the more the ants in a group interacted with their in-group peers, the more they would only interact with their in-group peers. This is especially problematic as the division of labor only functions when different groups work together.

“Social insect colonies thrive on the heterogeneity that leads to division of labor, but sometimes they need to make decisions that have to be embraced by the whole nest,” said Dr. Tarnita. “For example, when honeybees need to move their nest to a new location, it would be problematic if the colony couldn’t reach consensus and it ended up splitting,”

Not all is lost, however. The team explains that fighting the tendency to interact only with those similar to you, and accepting different viewpoints is a very efficient way of preventing polarization and rebuilding consensus.

“Our model predicts that if you interact with those who are different from you, over time, you’ll become similar to each other,” Tokita said. “It basically erases those differences.”

“One of the things I hope comes from this project is that it causes people in different fields, coming at and thinking about social behavior from different perspectives, to talk to each other a little more. In this project, we learned a lot by borrowing theories from sociology and political science, and combining them with our biological model.”

The paper “Social influence and interaction bias can drive emergent behavioural specialization and modular social networks across systems” has been published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

Mantis shrimps teach humans how to make a new type of optical material

Some time ago we wrote about the mantis shrimp’s uncanny form of communication: polarized light. Research focusing in on these tiny animals’ chatter will allow us to create a whole new type of polarizer — an optical device widely employed in modern cameras, DVD players, even sunglasses.

Mantis shrimp are probably best known for the dazzling colors that adorn their shells. The second thing they’re best known for is their tendency to violently murder anything they come into contact with. Using two frontal appendages that can move as fast as a bullet, the shrimp hunts for crabs, oysters, octopi, anything really, blasting them apart with an insanely powerful 1,5 kilo Newtons of force (337.21 lbs of force.)

Look at him. He just knows he’s the baddest shrimp in this pond.
Image via wikipedia

But why? And how did they come by their weapons? What is the mantis shrimp’s secret? Well nobody knows, because they communicate using a process so secretive most other species don’t even realize it’s happening.

The shrimp rely on light polarization to keep their conversations private. They have evolved reflectors that allow them to control the polarization of their visual signals, a property of light that most other species aren’t able to pick up on.

In an effort to crack their code, researchers from the Ecology of Vision Group (based in the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences) have studied the shrimps and discovered they employ a polarizing structure radically different from anything that humans have ever seen or developed.

The team’s analysis, coupled with computer modelling revealed that the mantis shrimp’s polarizers manipulate light across it’s structure rather than through its depth — as our polarizers do. This mechanism allows the animal to have small, microscopically thin and dynamic optical structures that still produce big, bright and colourful polarized signals.

“When it comes to developing a new way to make polarizers, nature has come up with optical solutions we haven’t yet thought of,” said Dr Nicholas Roberts from the School of Biological Sciences.

“Industries working on optical technologies will be interested in this new solution mantis shrimp have found to create a polarizer as new ways for humans to use and control light are developed.”

The full paper, titled ‘A shape-anisotropic reflective polarizer in a stomatopod crustacean’ is available online here.