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Political Polarization in the U.S.

Why are we increasingly divided?

Key points

  • Cognitive biases reinforce polarization.
  • Political party has become a strong social identity.
  • Americans are increasingly hostile toward those in the other political party.

It is hard not to feel that American citizens are living in two different universes at the present moment. Whether the topic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, police violence, or abortion, the level of conflict between opposing sides seems unparalleled. Angry and divisive rhetoric in mainstream and social media is everywhere to be found.

What is going on in this country?

The Political Polarization Question

Not surprisingly many political psychologists have been studying this question in hopes of furthering our understanding of what appears to be extreme political polarization. But surprisingly, some have suggested that, in fact, Americans are not as polarized as we appear, at least in regard to our positions on issues.

Political scientist Morris Fiorina has long argued that although politicians are more polarized than they once were, with political parties becoming increasingly ideologically homogeneous, most Americans are moderate pragmatists on the majority of issues we face. If that’s the case, why do we feel so polarized?

One convincing explanation is that American citizens are not necessarily issue-polarized so much as they are socially or affectively polarized, meaning that they are increasingly hostile to those in the other political party. Research supports this hypothesis with findings that Americans endorse more and more negative stereotypes about those in the other party, and many would be displeased to have a loved one marry someone from the other party. These results will not surprise those who’ve anxiously anticipated holiday dinners with family members who do not share their political leaning.

Thus, just as one can have a strong group identity based on race, gender, or religion that is central to one’s sense of self, political party identification can take on the same strong attachment. And identifying with a group often comes with a preference for individuals in that group and, sadly, a more negative view of those outside the group.

Cognitive Biases That Support Polarization

Further, once one comes to identify with one party or ideology, there is no shortage of ways for people to convince themselves that their position is correct. Social psychologists who study biases in the way we think about the social world have demonstrated time and again that we are not unbiased processors of information. In fact, we choose to pay attention to information that supports what we already believe, which is known as the confirmation bias. An example of this tendency would be to only read articles that agree with one’s position or to only watch the news channel that shares their political perspective.

When we have to face information that contradicts our beliefs, we find ways to hold fast to them nonetheless, a concept aptly named belief perseverance. Research has shown that, for example, during the Watergate hearings, supporters of Richard Nixon continued to think positively of him in spite of all the damning evidence that was introduced. In fact, they were unable to recall much of that negative information, suggesting that we do not retain information well that contradicts a strong belief.

We fall victim to the ultimate attribution error by holding the outgroup responsible for negative actions and blaming our own group’s negative behaviors on the situation. In other words, they did it because they’re bad; we did it because we had to.

We thus process information in such a way that our own group and our own positions are upheld as correct, and the other group and their positions are demonized. When you add to the mix the increasingly acrimonious and long election seasons, and news media and social media that help us to sort ourselves according to our political leanings, you end up with a situation that seems to only push Americans farther apart. We have fewer and fewer positive interactions with those on the other side.

Though historians remind us that the country has been deeply polarized before and recovered, it is essential that we find ways to re-establish respect and trust across party lines. As we watch Congressional leaders fail to come to agreement on important issues, it becomes clearer that the current situation is undermining the effectiveness of our fragile democracy.


Fiorina, M.P., Abrams, S.J., & Pope., J.C. (2011). Culture war? The myth of a polarized America. Boston, MA: Longman.

Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil aggrement: How politics became our identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M. Malhotra, N. & Westwood, S. (2019). The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science, 22, 129-146.

Carretta, T. R., & Moreland, R. L. (1982). Nixon and Watergate: A Field Demonstration of Belief Perseverance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8(3), 446-453.

Taylor, D. M., & Jaggi, V. (1974). Ethnocentrism and Causal Attribution in a South Indian Context. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 5(2), 162-171.

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