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Strengthening Democracy, One Experiment at a Time

Researchers show how science can make the world safer for democracy.

Key points

  • Some recent experiments show how we can boost pro-democracy sentiment.
  • Participants responded positively after watching advertisements showing how people bond with others despite having different viewpoints.
  • Applied scientists should work with advertisers to come up with creative ways to "sell" democracy like shoes or computers.
Gordon Johnson/Pixabay
Source: Gordon Johnson/Pixabay

In February, I attended the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference where thousands of scholars meet to share their work on a variety of important topics. One of my favorite sessions was about using science to strengthen democracy.

A research team led by Jan Voelkel presented their work from a “megastudy” to boost pro-democracy sentiment in Americans. The researchers asked their participants a variety of questions, such as how favorable they view people in a different political party (Democrat or Republican), whether they want their party to overthrow an election if they lose, or whether they approve of violence toward their political rivals. The study team tested 25 different interventions with over 32,000 participants in total.

Nearly all of the interventions worked to some extent at reducing partisan bitterness, but many of the effects were small (compared to the control group) and some worked much better than others. Among the most effective, perhaps surprisingly, was a Heineken commercial. It features people with extremely different political viewpoints talking to each other (with beer, of course). Watch it for yourself here.

I think what makes this advertisement compelling is that it shows people’s interest in getting to know each other despite their differences. The people in the ad chose to engage with others who said things they found highly offensive. By choosing to sit and have a drink together instead of walking away, these individuals refute a widely held stereotype that people with strong political beliefs will not speak with others who have divergent viewpoints.

After watching this video, participants felt much more positive toward others in different political parties. We saw something similar happen recently on social media (and ironically, it also involved beer). Turns out most people like each other even if they don't have identical beliefs.

What about the other variables, like support for partisan violence or overthrowing elections? This was much more difficult. Only a handful of interventions worked. The most effective strategies involved correcting misperceptions, which is one of the things I’m attempting to do with my posts here and on my podcast.

Like the Heineken commercial, another experiment also used a video, produced with help from the group Beyond Conflict. This video (watch it below) featured people talking about others in extremely negative terms. One remarked, “If you believe in Trump, you are automatically the worst person in the world.” But such negative attitudes were based on misperceptions. Participants were shown data about other people’s actual beliefs, and how most in the other party agreed with them about political topics such as immigration.

You can see their emotions shift towards the end of the video. They look happier and express a much more positive sentiment toward people in the other party. You can hear expressions of surprise like, “That’s amazing!” One participant said, “There’s so much more overlap than we realize.” The video ends with the message: “We’re not nearly as different as we think.”

Let’s look at one more experiment. In this one, researchers found that a big reason why people support things like political violence or overturning elections is because they wrongly think that’s what the other side is already doing. Researcher Alia Braley calls this the subversion dilemma, which is similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. In economic games, people are more selfish if they believe that others are also behaving selfishly. In politics, people might say something like, “Well, they are trying to subvert democracy, therefore, we should strip away their rights!” For example, Democratic voters may overestimate the extent to which Republicans want to shut down polling locations in blue states in order to rig an election, so they approve of violence or corruption from their own side as a form of political retaliation.

How do we fix this? By reminding everyone of the truth—these anti-democratic behaviors are extremely unpopular amongst Democrats and Republicans. Participants are given information that the other party does not want to mess with democracy, and this makes participants want to uphold peaceful pro-election norms.

In thinking about what made these experiments successful, I suggest heeding wisdom from Julia Minson. A public policy researcher, Minson gave some concluding remarks that resonated with me. She asked, “Should nerds be in charge of saving democracy?” It was a rhetorical question. But she prompted me and others in the audience to consider if academics are really as clever and creative as those designing advertisements for Apple, Ford, or Nike. Maybe not? Maybe we should start thinking about how to sell democracy to people the way we sell beer or computers or athletic shoes. Maybe applied science should involve merging academic theories with consumer insights. Maybe a deeper connection with the average person could lead to insights that can help scientists strengthen democracy… one experiment at a time.


Voelkel, J., Stagnaro, M., Chu, J., Pink, S., Mernyk, J., Redekopp, C., ... & Willer, R. (2022). Megastudy identifying successful interventions to strengthen Americans’ democratic attitudes. Northwestern University: Evanston, IL, USA.

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