The huge political divide in America has been on the minds’ of scholars for decades. Since the 1970s, and especially since the 1990s, the gap between the median Democrat and the median Republican has been steadily widening. There’s also been what scientists call the “big sort” where Americans have sorted themselves by politics, demographics, and otherwise.
Political division is only one effect of outrage porn, but it’s one of the most important with many experts suggesting that our current level of political polarization is nothing short of a major threat to democracy.
Recent research suggests it may be even worse than we think and the term polarization doesn’t capture the full nature of the condition.
In 2020, a team of all-star researchers across six disciplines got together to look at the collective knowledge about our state of polarization. Their work resulted in a paper published in Science magazine that hit the newsstands about the time of the big 2020 presidential election. They introduced a new term to describe it: “political sectarianism” which goes beyond ideological division to something based on moral superiority and hatred.
Peter Ditto is one of those all-star scientists. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is Professor, Psychological Science at University of California, Irvine. Professor Ditto has worked to explain “motivated reasoning,” and more recently “motivated moral reasoning,” how people selectively recruit general moral principles to support desired moral conclusions.
Peter Ditto is the guest on this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast because he, through his research, can help us understand more about the state of our political polarization and make sense of the outrage.
We cover this in two parts. Be sure to catch part two for the conclusion of the interview where we talk about how we overestimate the extremism of the other side and their hatred of us and various other distortions that get in the way of productive dialogue, as well as things like the Big Sort and loyalty tests.
Peter H. Ditto is a professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine. He directs the Hot Cognition Lab, which studies how people make judgments in emotionally-charged and motivationally-involving situations, and particularly in how emotion and motivation can shape (and often bias) our reasoning processes and, ultimately, our beliefs about ourselves and the world.
Political Sectarianism paper in Science: Political sectarianism in America
Political polarization, a concern in many countries, is especially acrimonious in the United States (see the first box). For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter—how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge vis-à-vis political ideals and policy goals. Such competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, researchers have identified a second type of polarization, one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party (1). This literature has produced a proliferation of insights and constructs but few interdisciplinary efforts to integrate them. We offer such an integration, pinpointing the superordinate construct of political sectarianism and identifying its three core ingredients: othering, aversion, and moralization. We then consider the causes of political sectarianism and its consequences for U.S. society—especially the threat it poses to democracy. Finally, we propose interventions for minimizing its most corrosive aspects.
Dr. Peter H. Ditto Hot Cognition Lab: https://sites.uci.edu/peterdittolab/