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Andreas Flache: can polarization happen even if nobody actually wants it to?

Polarization: Can it happen even if nobody actually wants it to?

Polarization in society is an increasing concern for many. Fault lines appear to open up between left and right, populists and the elite, ethnic minorities and the majority. But can polarization arise even when people do not initially disagree much? For example, most people prefer to interact with others similar to themselves, trust more in the opinions of others whom they agree with or disagree with a person who they do not like. While this is ‘normal’ human behaviour, it can have grave consequences for society.

Andreas Flache

In our research group in Sociology, we develop computer models of what happens in large groups if everyone follows such simple principles. As it turns out, slight initial disagreements between different groups can already be enough to trigger a negative spiral. This can be started by just a few people taking up extreme views because they want to distance themselves from a disliked outgroup. As they interact primarily among their own group (for example, through social media), their ‘friends’ also adopt these negative views, which in turn leads to less positive interactions between groups. A further possible reason is that people get increasingly convinced of their opinions if they mostly talk to like-minded others.

Real-life experiments lend some support to these models. We find that interaction limited to like-minded individuals can drive groups apart. If this is true, polarization might be reduced by exposing people to more dissonant points of view. But could this just evoke more negative responses? We will test this in future large-scale online experiments.

A. (Andreas) Flache, Prof Dr
First name
Social integration, Cooperation, Social networks, Agent-based modelling, Social complexity
Last modified:03 September 2019 1.55 p.m.
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