Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Divided We Are, and Getting More So

Data show we are more divided socially than ever.

Key points

  • Society is divided, and our divisions are sharper, making groups seem more distant.
  • People report having fewer social contacts, making the groups they belong to more salient.
  • Strong group identities can be based on attributes other than race, gender, and age.

Co-authored by Katerina Bezrukova, Ph.D.

We live in a divided world in so many ways, and it seems everyone has noticed no matter where you sit on the divide. Today we are writing about “big picture” groups, not only division in intimate groups like work teams and families, where a split can be a big deal. We are also thinking about the types of groups we all belong to, where you might not know all your fellow members.

For instance, you might be a member of what used to be called a “special interest group,” like a wildlife association or a member of a church congregation. Or you might identify with a particular political party. Despite not knowing everyone in the group, we are realizing that these types of “macro” groups are quite significant in shaping how we think and act. It’s clear that such divisions are important: they have been connected with and blamed for discrimination, radicalizing politics, and dysfunctional governments. So, appreciating the power and impact of divisions and understanding them should be a high priority for behavioral scientists. Let’s look at what we know and what we don’t know that is worth knowing.

We seem more divided. But what is really dividing us?

For most people, identity, or sharing an identity with others, means identity with others of the same race, gender, and approximate age, generally differences and similarities that we can see. It may seem obvious that such differences would form the group identities we hold near and dear. But are these the most important attributes that do the social sorting we see?

Recent research by Klaus Desmet, Ignacio Ortuno-Ortin, and Romain Warcziang says instead that how people identify themselves does not necessarily hinge upon race, age, or gender but rather cultural values. They instead conclude that differences in cultural values, more specifically attributes like religious beliefs, life experiences, and political attitudes, are important ways that people sort themselves into groups and feel very different from others not in their group.

In our research on counselors treating substance abuse disorders, we have noticed how important life experiences are in dividing people. Counselors fell into two subgroups; some were very willing to try out evidence-based treatments on their clients, and others stuck to more traditional approaches. The biggest factor that explained these differences between counselors was whether they had a substance abuse disorder, surely a transformative life experience.

Thus, the differences between counselors in how they approached their work had little to do with demographics and more with transformative life experience. Explaining differences among groups based only on common demographics has its limitations and may not even be the most important or meaningful factor dividing us. People developing and evaluating group-based workplace activities like DEI programs may want to take note of these findings as well.

We are getting more divided? Why?

Despite all the attention given to demographic divisions, we have always been “divided” by identity. After all, people have always had individual differences. But the intensity of those differences among people seems to be increasing and more polarizing. Political scientists have documented this for some time now in voting patterns, attitudes, and the resultant makeup of Congress (where are all the moderates?). And with polarization comes relative isolation; there is a long-term trend showing a decline in how many close connections or friendships people report having in their social groups and networks.

Gallup polls and the Survey on American Life tell us that while in 1990, 33 percent of Americans reported having 10 or more friends, by 2021, only 13 percent reported that number (possibly depressed by the pandemic). In 1990, only 3 percent reported having no close friends, but in 2021, 12 percent reported being friendless. These changes are important for population health because social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity.

What’s behind these long-term changes in the number of social contacts? Research has shown these trends go back to at least the 1970s, so it’s not just the internet or social media and certainly not the pandemic, though it may have exacerbated these tendencies. But other technological changes might play a role.

In the US and many other countries, television used to be a choice of two to three channels. Everyone essentially watched the same thing. Cable and satellite systems led to specialized programming that changed that homogeneous media. Today very little programming is watched by a majority of people at any one time other than possibly the Superbowl. Along with the internet, these changes enable and encourage people to restrict what they see and hear, drawing people with similar interests ever more tightly together (and isolated from others who consume very different media).

Technology is not the only factor that has been connected to sharper divides between us, or what could be called the "faultlinization" of society. Social scientists have suggested that the lack of sidewalks in many modern suburbs plays a role in encouraging isolation and separation. The point is that if people are indeed sorting themselves into more distinct subgroups, we can identify several plausible reasons behind this effect.

Is the research paying attention? Where do we go from here?

Divides are important, and we would expect research to pay attention. And research into divides has itself evolved in several ways recently. Increasingly studies focus not only on small groups of a few people but groups defined as an entire organization and even populations. In addition to “going bigger,” research is starting to study things that divide us other than gender, race, and age, such as the way employees handle different work-family issues they have, divides among top management teams according to political ideology, and divides among sports teams and how that affects performance.

Ultimately, we can conclude divisions are everywhere and factor in some way in almost every aspect of work and life. Whatever we can learn from these research efforts can potentially be of enormous value in understanding groups and teams and how the myriad of different people in them try to relate to each other. As we become both increasingly sorted and identified in these groups, and the groups themselves feel “further apart” the need to understand them more becomes more acute.

Katerina Bezrukova, Ph.D., is an associate professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

More from Chester S Spell Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Chester S Spell Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today