To Fight Polarization, Ask, “How Does That Policy Work?”

Article by Alex Chesterfield and Kate Coombs: “…One reason for this effect, and for the polarizing outcome, is we often overestimate our understanding of how political policies work. In this case, the more omniscient we think we are, the easier it is to ignore alternative facts or ideas. This phenomenon has a name—the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). Unless explicitly tested, individuals can remain largely unaware of the shallowness of their own understanding of the things they think they understand—such as the mechanics of a bicycle, or how the policy they support or despise will actually work.

Researchers have started to explore what happens to political attitudes when you explicitly test people on how much they actually know about a policy. When people discover that they don’t know as much as they thought they did, something interesting happens: their political attitudes become less extreme….

Some countries and institutions are already using these insights to improve decision-making on divisive topics. Deliberative democracy, which plays out in the form of citizens’ assemblies and juries, where a small group of people (12-24) come together to deliberate on an issue, provide time and information to encourage participants to generate explanations—rather than justifications based on values, hearsay, or feelings—for their positions. Participants also tend to be representative of the general population; research suggests that increasing contact between diverse individuals could also help diminish affective polarization by shrinking the prejudices we form when making assumptions about the “other” that are based on reductive stereotypes, rather than real, complex people.

Outside of juries and citizens assemblies, countries like Ireland have used deliberative democracy to address a range of complex and highly polarized issues including same-sex marriage, access to abortion, and climate change. U.K. politicians from both sides of the aisle have called for a Brexit assembly to try and break the U.K. political deadlock. Will it work? We don’t know yet, and we’d encourage researchers to continue to study this topic. In the meantime, we can each begin by  confronting our own ignorance. Before committing to a position or policy, ask yourself to explain mechanistically how you think it will bring about the intended outcome. Do you really understand it?

Test your own mechanistic reasoning. Pick a topic you feel strongly about: climate change, Brexit, Immigration, gun laws, assisted suicide/legal euthanasia. Instead of justifying why you support a particular position so strongly, try to explain how it might lead to a particular outcome….(More)”