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Bridging Differences Defined

Why Are We Divided?

Americans are increasingly divided along social and political lines. The evidence for this polarization can be found in our most intimate relationships and in our most public policy debates.

  • Political scientists are finding that more and more people are either all-liberal or all-conservative in their political positions—and so are the politicians they elect, as reflected in their votes in Congress.
  • There are many studies showing that more Americans are using their political party affiliation as a source of meaning and social identity, with these identities linked to how we play, what we buy, which movies we like, and even our sense of right and wrong.
  • Around 60 percent of Americans who strongly affiliate with one political party now want their child to marry within the party; in 1958, by contrast, 72 percent of respondents told pollsters the party of their child’s spouse did not matter.
  • While actual political violence is rare in the United States, a shockingly high percentage of Americans take pleasure in the thought of their political opponents being harmed.

Differences don’t necessarily need to divide people, but we do have a tendency, rooted in evolution, to split the world into “us” and “them”—and to treat members of our own “ingroup” with kindness while behaving badly toward outside groups. These tendencies can be especially pronounced at times when we feel stressed or threatened, anxious about our own security or survival.

Through mental shortcuts known as “heuristics,” we often make snap judgments about other people—which can turn negative in certain circumstances. For instance, opinions about immigrants might be formed by negative stories on cable news, which tap into the “availability heuristic,” wherein we make our judgments based on immediately accessible or repetitious information. People who aren’t exposed to other information will start to form stereotypes about immigrant groups, which in some cases can be used to rationalize exploitation or discrimination. These kinds of psychological processes make it easier for us to demonize outgroups and engage in chauvinistic behavior, helping create the divides we live in today.

Why does social and political polarization seem to be getting worse in American society?

This is a topic of fierce debate among political scientists and sociologists. We know that rapid demographic changes are introducing much more diversity to our neighborhoods, workplaces, government, and culture. This is leading to more anxiety among formerly dominant demographic groups, which elicits the kinds of psychological judgments and biases described above; when those biases go unchecked, the feelings of anxiety can lead to antagonism and prejudice. These divisions are now driving decisions about where Americans live, whom we befriend, and how we’re educating our children—serving to divide us further.

But Americans want to live in a country where our political differences don’t have to push us apart. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found one topic of agreement between Americans of different parties polled: 80 percent of respondents agreed that the country is “divided,” while 90 percent of those surveyed believed that the divisions between Democrats and Republicans are a “serious problem.”

By understanding the social and psychological roots of polarization, we can promote solutions that help bring people together by what they share in common, not what sets them apart.

What are the Limitations?

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Why Bridge Differences?

Americans live in one of the planet’s most diverse societies, and robust debates are healthy for any democratic country. But there is a difference between having disagreements and letting those disagreements define who we are, which can make all debates feel like matters of life or death. Breaking into antagonistic, polarized groups can have harmful consequences in nearly every realm of our life, from our homes to the quality of our governance. What’s more, some of our biggest goals can only be achieved by negotiating our differences and coming together.

  • Political differences are undermining our families. One recent study found that Thanksgiving dinners were significantly shorter in areas where Americans share meals across party lines. The effect was worse in areas with heavy political advertising.
  • Students in racially integrated schools do better. Schools are slowly resegregating along lines of class and race, but evidence suggests that students of all backgrounds perform better in more integrated schools.
  • Partisan polarization is preventing us from living together in the same communities. Americans are increasingly segregating themselves by political party and ideology in their residential communities. This geographic divide makes us more likely to demonize each other.
  • Bridging racial divides can be good for your health. Research has shown that individuals who harbor racial prejudices and fears experience elevated levels of stress and other physiological responses that, over time, can wear down muscles and damage their immune systems.
  • Positive political advertising bridges divides, increases participation, and wins votes. During the 1960 presidential campaign, only around 10 percent of political advertisements aired were negative; by 2012, only around 14 percent of campaign ads were positive. Increasingly, our politics is more about diminishing those with different points of view, which can obscure the quest to find meaningful solutions. In contrast, one 2016 study and another published in 2018 found that positive advertising actually seems to bridge divides.
  • When policymakers bridge divides, government becomes more efficient and solutions-oriented. It was once rare for U.S. senators to utilize the filibuster process to block votes. Today, even routine judicial appointments are subjects of controversy, and the filibuster is regularly invoked in a partisan way to promote gridlock, obstructing legislation that serves the public interest.
  • Polarization is hurting our collective pocketbook. Partisan impasse over the federal budget caused the longest government shutdown in American history; the resulting furlough of the federal workforce is expected to reduce America’s annual GDP.
  • Diversity is good for the bottom line. There are many studies suggesting that employees who are able to bridge differences are more creative and productive. One 2012 study found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity and better average growth. A 2018 study of professional videogaming found that the most diverse teams win the most prize money. A series of studies by Katherine Phillips and colleagues have found that diverse teams are more creative in solving problems.

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How to Bridge?

Despite some of our deeply rooted tendencies to divide ourselves into groups, humans also have the propensity to broaden and cross their group boundaries. Recent history has borne this out: Despite the extreme sectarian conflicts of the 20th century, by many measures the world today is more peaceful and tolerant than it has ever been before, thanks largely to bridge-building activism across the planet.

Here are some ways research has shown us we can build bridges across our differences.

  • Intergroup contact. Research suggests that fostering contact between members of different groups is one of the best ways to bridge divides—but only under the right conditions. In one of the most comprehensive analyses of intergroup contact, researchers looked at 515 studies and found that more contact could reduce prejudice between groups divided along dimensions like race, sexual orientation, disability, and mental illness. However, for these efforts to succeed, certain important conditions needed to be in place, including that the groups needed to share common goals and their contact needed to have the approval of relevant authority figures.
  • Focus on our shared identities. Another way for us to bridge differences is by focusing on the higher-level identities we share with others that transcend the more specific group identities that tend to sow division. For instance, a 2005 study found that participants—all soccer fans—were less likely to help an injured jogger if that jogger was wearing a jersey of a rival soccer team. However, in a subsequent experiment, the participants were reminded of their larger, more general identity as soccer fans; after that, they were more likely to help an injured fan of a rival team than they were to help someone who wasn’t wearing a soccer jersey at all.
  • Walk in the shoes of our opponents. In a pair of studies looking at race-based conflict, researchers paired Mexican immigrants with white Americans and paired Israelis with Palestinians—all of whom were asked to share their perspectives on the difficulties of life in their society, and to take the perspective of the person on the other side. For both pairings, this dialogue improved participants’ attitudes toward the other group, boosting empathy and warm feelings.

    Importantly, some evidence suggests that during interactions between members of groups that have been at odds with one another, the group with more social power is likely to experience greater improvements in their attitudes toward the other group when they take the other person’s perspective, whereas members of the group with less social power are likely to experience greater improvements in their attitudes toward the other group when they give their perspective.
  • Focus on others’ individual characteristics, not their group identity. Research has found that when people see someone from another group, their brains and bodies can respond as if they’re confronting a physical threat. However, when they’re encouraged to see those other people as individuals with their own unique tastes and preferences—for instance, by imagining the person’s favorite vegetable—their brains no longer jump into threat detection mode.
  • Practice “moral reframing.” If you’re trying to appeal to people on the other end of the political spectrum, think about the values that resonate with them—then present your argument in terms of how it supports those values, not in terms of your own values.
  • Cultivate mindfulness. Many studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can reduce bias against outgroups and help us to connect with many different kinds of people. Try these research-tested exercises on our Greater Good in Action website to develop your own ability to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness.

You can also take our Bridging Differences online course to learn core research-based principles and strategies for fostering positive relationships, dialogue, and understanding across lines of difference.

There are also organizations around the country that are trying to facilitate positive intergroup contact, such as Living Room Conversations and People’s Supper. Other organizations, like Junior State of America, are training students to bridge differences. The policy-focused organization Convergence is bringing political opponents together under controlled conditions, helping them to become competent communicators across partisan lines.

This work isn’t just about bringing people together. It’s also trying to build the skills we need to bridge our differences and work toward common goals.

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