UIC researchers’ video named a top intervention to address toxic polarization

In a time of rising levels of anti-democratic attitudes, support for political violence and partisan animosity in the United States, a video project co-produced by University of Illinois Chicago researchers is being recognized for its outstanding ability to reduce toxic polarization.

Through the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, led by Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, the video was one of more than 250 entries and among 25 finalists tested in a competitive “intervention tournament” involving more than 31,000 Americans. Leaders of the challenge asked researchers, activists and community workers to design interventions that could bridge the political divide between Americans and promote healthy democracy in the U.S.

In response to this challenge, Michael Pasek, UIC assistant professor of psychology; Rebecca Littman, UIC assistant professor of psychology; and their colleagues created a short film in which several Democrats and Republicans discuss how they feel misperceived by rival partisans. 

Following an evaluation by the Stanford-based research team, which gauged the video’s effectiveness on standard outcomes and compared it with the other selected interventions, the UIC researchers’ video intervention was named one of five winning projects based on its leading performance in the tournament.

The film shows clips of interviews conducted with Americans as they learn about — and react to — survey data from past research by the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab. In the film, Democrats and Republicans from across the United States are asked to rate their views on hot-button issues, like immigration. They then are asked to guess what the average member of the other party would assume that they would answer. When the answers are revealed, participants are surprised by how wrong their assumptions were.

“This can help viewers learn that Americans tend to overestimate the extent to which partisans disagree with and dislike one another. The viewers thus learn that partisans are not nearly as different and divided as they typically think,” Pasek said.

Among all of the interventions tested in the tournament, this video was the most effective intervention to reduce support for political violence and was one of the top five most effective interventions to reduce anti-democratic attitudes and partisan animosity among participants. It was one of only three interventions to affect all three outcomes.

“The success of our intervention demonstrates how insights from the social sciences can be applied to create evidence-based strategies to reduce political tension at a time when such tension abounds,” Littman said.

Their intervention was heavily informed by research conducted by their collaborator Samantha Moore-Berg at the University of Pennsylvania. Other contributors include Roman Gallardo of the University of Chicago, Nour Kteily of Northwestern University, filmmaker Wayne Price of ROOMTONE, and Beyond Conflict, a nonprofit organization that helped to fund the intervention’s development. 

“This experiment proved one thing: You can change people’s views of their political rivals and their commitment to democratic principles, but what works and what doesn’t work is not obvious,” said Robb Willer, professor of sociology and director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. “We hope these results offer an evidence-based toolbox that can be used to begin to rebuild the national damage wrought by anti-democratic rhetoric and candidates, and to strengthen the public’s commitment to democratic practices.”

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