“To Fight Polarization, Ask, “How Does That Policy Work?”” – by Alex Chesterfield and Kate Coombs

[From Behavioral Scientist]

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

By Alex Chesterfield and Kate Coombs

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



Alex’s experience reflects an increasingly split United Kingdom and United States, where ideological and political polarization (defined as the division of attitudes, typically along a single dimension)— have evolved into a new “phenomenon of animosity,” according to political scientist Shanto Iyengar and colleagues. That phenomenon is affective polarization—when ordinary people “increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party.” Research from 2010 shows, for instance, that nearly half of Republicans, and about one third of Democrats, said they would feel “somewhat or very unhappy” if their child married a member of the opposing party. This was around 5 percent in the 1960s.


In one U.S. study, when research asked participants of various political affiliations to explain how different policies, such as instituting a cap and trade system, would bring about specific outcomes, like reduced carbon emissions, they moderated their attitudes and reduced their donations to relevant advocacy groups. In contrast, the participants who simply provided a list of reasons that they supported a policy did not. These findings, researchers conclude, could imply a connection between polarized attitudes and overly simplistic mental models for how policies actually work.


Alex Chesterfield
Alex Chesterfield is a behavioral scientist working in financial services. She is an associate of the Depolarization Project, based in Stanford, California. Previously, she was an elected local government councillor in the U.K. and has an M.Sc. from UCL in cognitive and decision science.

Kate Coombs
Kate Coombs is a behavioural scientist working in financial services. She holds an MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences from University College London.”

“Social influencers: what can we learn from animals?” [Oxford University]

[From Oxford University]

“Social influencers: what can we learn from animals?


Research from Oxford University calls us to reconsider how behaviours may spread through societies of wild animals, and how this might provide new insights into human social networks.

Our social connections to one another, whether it be online or in real life, give rise to our ‘social networks’. Previously, it has often been assumed that the individuals with the most social connections are the primary ‘social influencers’ and most likely to acquire, and spread, new behaviours. Behaviours were viewed to spread simply based on the amount of exposure to others, just like contracting a contagious disease might depend on exposure to infected individuals. This viewpoint has not only been applied to humans, but also a range of different animal species too.

However, a new study from Oxford University suggests our understanding of animal behaviours are enhanced by drawing on the latest findings in human systems, which show that the most influential individuals are not necessarily the most social ones. Instead, the most important individuals often tend to be those occurring in tight knit friendship circles. Even though these individuals may have relatively few social connections, they wield high influence within their cliques and promote the rapid spread of new behaviours.

The new study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, shows how these recent insights, coming from contexts as varied as how new technologies are adopted, how political movements occur, and even how social media hashtags spread, can now be harnessed for furthering our understanding of animal societies too. The study presents examples showing how even in the most basic systems, small changes in how behaviours spread can enormously affect which animals might adopt a behaviour, and which might be important to spreading it.

The author of the study, Dr Josh Firth, said: ‘Just like in humans, various animal species are known to be capable of social considerations, such as when to adopt a behaviour, or who to learn from. These choices mean that behaviours don’t spread like diseases.’


The study:

Considering Complexity: Animal Social Networks and Behavioural Contagions
Josh A. Firth

Published:December 03, 2019

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.10.009

Jonathan Haidt Explains How Social Media Drives Polarization

“In a time of heightened political tension, Jonathan Haidt has a good idea of what’s driving this polarized atmosphere around the world. He is a social psychologist who believes social media has transformed in recent years to become an “outrage machine,” spreading anger and toxicity. He sits down with Hari to discuss this difficult problem and what the possible solutions could be.”