How criticizing us-versus-them behavior in one’s political in-group can help reduce polarization (on both sides)

I’ve thought about political polarization a lot the last few years. It’s been a frequent focus of mine for my psychology podcast People Who Read People, and I’m currently working on a book about healing American divides.

One thing I’ve come to believe is that a key part of reducing polarization is convincing more people of the importance of criticizing one’s own political group/side. I have other thoughts about polarization (hence the book project) but I wanted to write something now about why I think criticizing one’s own side is important, and even probably necessary, if our goal is reducing the most unreasonable manifestations of our political anger.

To start with, it’s important to understand that political polarization is common. The United States is just one of many countries who’ve become increasingly polarized and increasingly at each others’ throats, in the past and currently. Research shows that most countries have become increasingly polarized since 2005. The issues we fight about can of course be important but at the root of our divides is an increasing visceral disgust with and fear of “the other side” that is much more central to the problem than differences on specific issues. The positions and conflicts over issues ramp up and come to seem more and more life-or-death because of this visceral emotional disgust and anger and fear we feel.

This is how this plays out in all countries, present and past, that have become very polarized. (If you’d like to learn more about polarization and how it’s happening around the world, I recommend this talk with a polarization expert.)

There are myriad of reasons for why polarization tends to increase, why there are so many feedback mechanisms that ramp it up: geographic self-sorting, increasingly living in cultural bubbles, media amplifying thought bubbles, political leaders who seek to gain power by harnessing and amplifying polarization, to name a few factors.

We are at war largely with our instincts

One thing that I’ve been focusing on is how much our instincts work against us in these areas. There are many group psychological instincts we have that tend to amplify polarization: our instincts to not question or criticize our “tribe,” our instincts to see the other group as monolithic and all-the-same (aka the out-group homogeneity effect) while viewing our side as having a range of beliefs, our bias towards absorbing information that confirms our beliefs. And this might make intuitive sense to us when considering how often big nations become polarized: there is something inside of us, our social instincts, that are a big part of our problem.

This is why I believe that in order to solve extreme polarization (and by “solve,” I roughly mean to reduce it substantially to levels that don’t threaten a country’s stability), we have to be willing to question our instincts. And one big instinct I see as playing a big role in this area is the instinct to not criticize our own side.

We are afraid to question our group

You’ve probably felt that to some degree. Can you remember a time when there was a belief that many people on your political side had that you thought was unreasonable and extreme? Did you see someone in your political group, a friend or a family member, saying something espousing that unreasonable and extreme view, and think, “Gosh, this is a really bad take” but feel a bit of pressure to not speak up?

And why are such decisions painful? Why is there emotional pressure there? It’s painful because we are social creatures, because we don’t want our “tribe” to think bad of us. We don’t want to be cast out; we don’t want to be thought of as a bad member, or a traitor.

And along with that, we don’t want to think of the people “on our side” as bad people or dumb people. So when we see people on our side saying things that initially struck us as quite unreasonable and extreme, we often make excuses for them, and for our side generally. “Okay, I’m starting to see why that view might make sense.” And maybe we start to come around to the idea. Or maybe we continue thinking that that commonly held stance on our side is pretty unreasonable but it’s a small drop in the bucket to the problems and dangers of “the other side,” so it doesn’t strike us as that significant.

If you can relate to some of this in your life, is it possible to see how some people on “the other side” might have similar pressures?

We can be fearful of questioning our group even within ourselves

It’s also possible that there can be some cognitive dissonance present. When one perceives that there may be legitimate problems with some of the stances of one’s own political group, but one also perceives (or feels pressure to perceive) “the other side” as bad, or even evil, it can produce an internal conflict. Because if one were to investigate and think about how the other side might have some valid points about one’s own side, it would mean we’d feel some responsibility to think about that and talk about that. And if we were to do that, we know we’d be at risk of being judged by people in our group and possibly socially demoted.

In order to resolve that conflict, we can have a motivation to avoid examining such ideas, and this can lead us to defensively double down in our beliefs that the other side is almost uniformly bad in their beliefs and our group is almost uniformly right in our beliefs (or at least much better than the other side).

In other words: we can feel a pressure to not grant the other side “points,” not just externally, but within ourselves. Because acknowledging that the other side may have some rational points is threatening to us as social creatures.

I’d say acknowledging that the other side can have rational points is also just tiring intellectually. Because the more we question some of our side’s stances and examine how people on our side may be contributing to our divides, the more we have to think for ourselves. And that is tough. It is tough intellectually, and it is tough emotionally. There is a comfort in letting one’s group make some major decisions for us and help shape our opinions. There can be wisdom in group knowledge: we are social creatures and we want the group to lead us. When we veer from our group, we feel the anxiety of being stranded in our solitary world, a million miles away from the social world, cut off, trying to find our own lonely way through existence.

It’s no wonder that we cede much of our opinion formation to the group when faced with the threat of that stressful loneliness and the effort it will take to do that opinion formation entirely on our own.

This is not to say that all political polarization is based on such psychological things, as there can be very real, intellectual disagreements on issues, but to say that the more polarized a nation becomes, the more emotion there is and hence the more pressure there can be to align with one’s group.

Conformity leads to extremity

Like-minded groups grow more extreme. In psychology, this is sometimes referred to as group polarization. This makes intuitive sense: when everyone in our group agrees with us, and we don’t hear from people who might poke some holes in our beliefs, our views can easily become distorted and out-of-whack.

In a politically polarized environment, as pressure grows to fit in with one’s group, the less willing people are to speak up and criticize the most vocal and angry people in their own group. The more moderate and reasonable people — the people who are able to see the humanity and rationality in most people, even while disagreeing with them — are less willing to speak up, and the more extreme people gain more power.

A key point here: when we talk about “extremity,” this isn’t only referring to a group’s stances on issues. Polarization is largely about our emotions towards “the other side.” So a group growing more “extreme” can manifest as how much hatred and fear they feel towards the other side (which can in turn manifest as more hardened and unreasonable stances on issues).

An instinct to avoid doing things that might help the other side

Along with the pressures I’ve mentioned, there is an instinctual or intellectual feeling that criticizing one’s own side helps the other side. “If I point out the flaws of this prominent member of my group,” the thinking might go, “I’ll be giving the other side fuel to use against our side. It’ll weaken our side and help the other side.”

But what if this instinct of ours is completely wrong? What if this instinct of ours is just one of the many instincts we have that hasten and amplify polarization? What if there were many benefits to criticizing one’s own side? What if convincing more people to question and criticize their own side was one of the ways we might substantially reduce polarization?

If that were true, it might mean that in order to solve our problems, in order to solve America (or other countries) from descending into chaos and possibly violence, we might have to undergo an entirely new endeavor: an attempt to rise above, to transcend, our social psychology and do things that feel weird and unhelpful to us. It might require more going “against the grain” and attempting to see the value in ideas that at first seem idiotic, or even traitorous, to us.

It may be that polarization is like a natural force, like gravity or a chemical combustion, and to counteract it we have to, in some senses, act against our nature. Or at least consider new ideas in order to see how they might actually be part of our nature in a different, new form.

Benefits of criticizing the other side

So what are the benefits of pushing back against the more unreasonable and extreme voices in one’s own group? Here are the benefits I see:

  • We push our own group to become more rational, and more reasonable, and more persuasive and attractive to a wider range of people.
  • Because the other side’s anger and fear is based on their perception of the more extreme and unreasonable people on our side, in making our group more reasonable and more persuasive, we also reduce the fear and anger of people on the other side, which in turn reduces the fear and anger of people on our side.
  • We act as a model for people on the other side, to show how it can be done. We encourage others on the other side to do the same thing we are doing, to show how one doesn’t have to fit the stereotype of one’s group (in an episode of my podcast, polarization researcher Jaime Settle mentioned demonstrating our own complexity as a key strategy for reducing polarization)

And a point I think is very important here: we can really only affect our own side. We can righteously judge and castigate the other side all we want (and we do) and clearly those things don’t have an impact. (In fact, I think many people would agree that a lot of the most angry and righteous moral judgments about political stances seems to only add to the judged group’s grievances, and thus our polarization.)

In order to feel morally judged, and to feel bad about doing or believing something, we must respect the people doing the judging, and that is just not the case in a very polarized environment. And this is another reason I’d say there is hidden value in criticizing people on our own side: because there’s no other place your criticism will do any good.

Research supports this idea

Research has lent support to the bridge-building aspects of in-group criticism. A 2014 paper by Tamar Saguy and Eran Halperin was titled Exposure to Outgroup Members Criticizing Their Own Group Facilitates Intergroup Openness. Here’s an excerpt from that paper:

A major barrier to conflict resolution is group members’ tendency to hold on to the ingroup’s narrative of the conflict and reject the outgroup’s perspective. In the current research, we propose that voicing internal criticism to an outgroup crowd can undermine such orientations and foster intergroup openness. Across four experiments, Israeli Jews who were exposed to a Palestinian criticizing Palestinians were more open to the Palestinians’ perspective of the conflict, than those not exposed to the criticism. [emphasis added]

In another paper titled Outgroup members’ internal criticism promotes intergroup openness: The role of perceived risk, the authors discussed the paper just mentioned and some related work:

In intergroup conflict that is tense and hostile, each side aims to ensure that their weaknesses are not made public to the rival group, as any such expression could leave them vulnerable to attack. This threat amplifies pressure to conform to ingroup norms and fosters greater dislike of individuals who express dissent or deviate from group norms (e.g., Ariyanto, Hornsey, & Gallois, 2010). In this context, deviance from the group is an incredibly risky endeavor. Recently, though, research has examined how this deviance is perceived by the outgroup (Saguy & Halperin, 2014). Notably, hearing an outgroup member voice criticism of their own group evokes greater openness to the outgroup’s perspective.

In Peter Coleman’s book about American polarization, The Way Out, he talks about how emphasizing nuance and complexity was an important part of every peacemaking process. Group-versus-group anger is based on simplistic narratives, and the more we can show that things are complex, the more we’ll break down those narratives.

We are more powerful than we know

I think many people reading this might agree with these ideas, but feel like the effort is too herculean, too impossible. But I think that is also a mistake. I’d argue that feeling that the actions of individuals don’t matter is part of our natural human instinct and part of the very things that contribute to polarization. “Why would I speak up and criticize this person on my side? It doesn’t really matter what I say. These things are bigger than me.”

But in fact, I’d argue that you have a lot of power. Society is built on our interactions, all the many small interactions we all engage in many times. Society, and all the powerful forces we perceive in it, is built upon all our interactions. Society is just the things you do every day, the way you relate to others around you, multiplied by thousands.

The truth is that we are always adjusting our behaviors based on what the people in our peer group say to us. When a friend tells you on Facebook, “hey, I get where you’re coming from, but I have to tell you that post you made was missing some context…” and they respectfully tell you a few points, do you listen to them? I think you do. We all listen to each other, all the time (provided some base level of respect). That is what we do, as social creatures.

And the powerful media figures and politicians who we perceive as “leading the way” are not themselves permanent owners of power. They are harnessers of the social winds; sometimes aggressively enthusiastic harnessers, sometimes feeling pressured to go with the flow. We choose those in power based on our own beliefs and angers and fears; they shape themselves to our demands, and if they don’t, we find someone who is more the shape we prefer. Another way to look at power is that it is merely the manifestation of our cumulative thoughts and beliefs. We, as a group, create power, and with our cumulative behaviors, we change the forces of power.

A follow-up piece: criticisms of a specific social media account and thoughts on what we can all do better

Sometimes pieces about political polarization can be academic and theoretical, removed from the real world. So I wanted to give an example of criticizing someone “on my side” who I believe is very unhelpful, even quite harmful, and to give some specific reasons why I think divisive, us-versus-them language can be so harmful.

That piece is here: An examination of divisive, polarized rhetoric from Twitter account @JuliusGoat. It also includes thoughts about what we might all do better in terms of speaking more accurately and less divisively.

If you’ve enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy some of the political-focused episodes of my podcast here. A recent one that is especially applicable is this talk about liberal-side contributions to polarization.

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Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

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Zachary Elwood

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).