Dr. Peter Coleman discusses the nation's progression to "toxic polarization" and how we can begin to break the cycle.

Producer: Serena Balani
05/16/2022 • 09:09 AM EST

Dr. Peter T. Coleman, social psychologist and professor at Columbia University, discusses the nation's multi-decade progression to a state of "toxic polarizationsee definition - emotional dislike and distrust of political outgroups.
" and the structural and economic incentives both old and new media have to perpetuate it. He details how this tribal dynamic affects our daily lives and has widened the gap between our perceptions of those on the other side vs. reality. He concludes by offering some strategies that could help break the cycle.

0:00: Serena Balani:

With us today, we have Dr. Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. And author of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. And we're here with him today to talk about polarization and perhaps how we can try to overcome it. Dr. Coleman, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:19: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

0:22: Serena Balani:

So you've mentioned before that polarization in a democracy isn't necessarily a bad thing, but that toxic polarization, the way we see it today is, so could you clarify the difference between the two?

0:35: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Yeah, sure. In a two party system like ours, it's a good thing to have, you know, true passionate, informed believers on different sides of an issue, challenging each other, trying to find novel solutions to move us forward. And in fact, in America, in the 1950s, there was too little polarization, too little distance between the two political parties. There's a lot of overlap and policy orientations and positions, and people were really calling for more distance between them. However, we got what we asked for. And since the 1970s, we have been moving further and further apart in our attitudes, in our perceptions of the other side. And it's moved into a dynamic that I call "toxic polarization." That is toxic for us. It's toxic for us as individuals. It's toxic for our relationships, for our families, scales up to our communities and, you know, at the national level. And then when you have wedge issues, like we saw with the leak of the SCOTUS Supreme court decision this week, it can really be a tinderbox where things can become extremely explosive.

So, you know, I use the term toxic to characterize what is really now a multi-decade pattern of increasing enmity and distance between the parties that is making us all sick as individuals, families, and as a nation. But in some ways it is a dynamic that is like an addiction, because it is a bio psychosocial, structural dynamic. It's not just something that I choose to do, but it starts to be embedded in my neurology, the neurological structures and how I make decisions. The media I attend to, who I talk to, who I don't talk to, you know, my neighbors, or places I travel or don't travel. All of these things affect my experience of being in this sort of tribal dynamic, that is becoming increasingly dangerous physically for us, but also in terms of the potential for political violence.

2:48: Serena Balani:

In your book, you've mentioned that those on opposing sides of the political spectrum experience fundamentally different realities. How has polarization fueled this divide? Not just in our views, but in our lifestyles?

3:02: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Yeah, I do believe that this is what I would call a complex dynamic. It's not something that's caused only by the internet and the algorithms that sort us into content that is consistent with previous content we viewed. And so, you know, red Americans get more red content, blue Americans, more blue content. It's not only a factor of the media, of the mainstream media, of news programs. And the fact that news programs for the past 30 years have become more entertainmentized, right? They're more about capturing people's attention and, you know, an attention economy. They're about provocation. They're about identifying two sides of what oftentimes are very complex issues with multiple sides and multiple dimensions, but we simplify them down around, should we build a wall or not build a wall? Right? So part of the business model of a lot of social media and mainstream media is around provocation and attack and contention, which does gain attention, but it does hijack us and hijacks our brains and hijacks our minds.

You know, it is outrage and the taste for retaliation is an addictive substance. It triggers aspects of the brain areas of the brain that are also triggered by narcotics. And, you know, social media magnets and the mainstream media business models know that, they play into that. And they're trying to keep us on and pinned in as much as possible. So those factors all contribute to what I would call a kind of constellation of factors, including our homes. People that we're comfortable talking to in our homes, in our families, in our buildings, in our neighborhoods, that we're, as humans, there is a dynamic called homophily, which is that we're more attracted to, and more comfortable being with people that are like us. And when people are really different from us, they look different, they sound different, they have different political attitudes, we're less comfortable. And that basic difference plays out under conditions like this, particularly when you have divisive leadership in Washington, politicians that are really trying to just appeal to their base and pit us against each other.

So it is this constellation of things that leads to what I call a state of American psychosis, like mass psychosis, where you have two halves of this country, virtually who live in different media ecosystems, different social media ecosystems, talk to different people, have different fact patterns. And so in some way, you know, you'll see the same event happen, like the Supreme Court incident, or like war on Ukraine, and it's immediately skewed and seen in fundamentally different, and oftentimes opposing ways. And that is almost a degree of psychosis, which is being out of touch with the objective realities that we're facing.

6:06: Serena Balani:

Could you expand on what metrics you use to measure polarization?

6:12: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Yeah. So again, as I alluded to, there are many different types of measures of this. One, there is a measure that McCarty at Princeton uses, which is just looking at congressional voting patterns over 200 years. And it really is looking at how often, you know, a Democrat crosses the isle and supports legislation proposed by a Republican or when does that diminish. So they have measures like that, which show us patterns over a couple of hundred years of when we see our leaders come together on legislation and when they fail to do so or are unable to do so. That's a pretty standard measure, but at the more local level the primary thing that people study is what's called affective polarization. And it is a set of questions about how do you feel towards the outgroup in terms of warmth or coldness? How do you feel towards the in group? And what kinds of associations do you make in terms of, are they intelligent or unintelligent? Are they well-meaning or are they actually actively trying to harm the nation? So we look at those kinds of affective responses to the other group and to our own group, and that's a standard measure, as well.

But as I said, there are some other measures that are important. Like the tracking of physical location, they can estimate where Republicans and Democrats are moving and how they're physically moving away from each other is an excellent, more kind of large data measure. And this measure is a measure by a group called More in Common, and they've been studying what they call the perception gap. And the perception gap is I believe that members of the other party have more extreme attitudes and take more extreme actions on certain policy issues than they actually do. And in holding that belief, it tends to push me to respond in a more extreme way as well. So there's a gap between our perception and our reality of them, which affects us in a kinda self-fulfilling prophecy way. And this is one of the dynamics.

So again, there are multiple, I think I've identified something like a dozen different measures. Some are more at the individual level. Some are more at the structural level, like physically moving away from each other or in governmental voting. So there are a variety of different measures that scale up, but they're all pointing in the same direction, which is that things have been getting worse and worse.

8:42: Serena Balani:

Coming back to toxic polarization, what makes it so attractive to so many people?

8:50: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Well, again, as I said earlier, it is an addictive substance. We're more comfortable with people like us, then not like us. So there is a basic tendency to kind of group into similarities. But again, these feelings of outrage, these feelings of a need to retaliate against and own the libs or own the other side, these are addictive qualities. And, you know, they're something that are weaponized, you know, or at least commoditized by social media and mainstream media. And so it is part of the ecosystem that we pay attention to, and we pay attention to it because we need to understand the news and what's happening everyday.

But note that, you know, when I was a kid growing up, there were three channels on television. They told the same news, the same fact patterns came out. And so we were all sort of paying attention to the world through this portal that was pretty consistent, more or less. Today, there's such a profound difference in the quality and the quantity or the content of the different points of view on the news. And so our addiction to these processes that are sensational and provocative, and that are tapping into our addiction to media and addiction to outrage are opposing oftentimes. So that dynamic is part of what is making us sick.

10:19: Serena Balani:

And in your book, you mentioned examples like the anti-abortion movement in Boston and Watertown in New York where, you know, toxic polarization didn't come in the way of the dynamics of the people. So could you expand on what took place during those moments and how the mindsets like those could potentially curb the divide?

10:41: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Yeah. Well, so it's a good question. So I guess I would say the first case, which was a case around abortion, which is, you know, a timely case to talk about today, did begin with very toxic relationships. The state of rhetoric and vitriol and hate between the pro-life and pro choice groups, the degrees of protests, daily protests that were happening were very high in the late eighties and early nineties. And then there was this extraordinarily violent incident in Brookline, which is an area of Boston where several women were killed and shot by a man in, you know, women's clinics there. And that kind of ruptured the dynamic and it raised anxiety by everybody and the mayor of Boston, the governor of Massachusetts, the Cardinal Archbishop, the Catholic church, all sort of said, wait, we have to like, stop, take a look at what's going on.

And so they tried to do some things, but one of the things that came of that time of that shock was that six women, three women pro-life leaders in Boston, three pro-choice leaders in Boston, came together under the auspices of a group called the Public Conversations Project. They were invited in, they had known of, and worked with the Public Conversations Project before. And they just agreed to come together to talk to each other, even though there was profound vilification of the other side. They really, you know, the pro-life women really viewed, even sitting down with the pro-choice women as a sin, as something that would taint them, they really believed they were murderers. And to sit down with them was a horrible thing to do, but they wanted to try to avoid another incident of violence like this. And to some degree, these women felt that they had been complicit in creating the conditions where violence like this could occur.

So they took that very seriously and they came together. It was hard. They did it in secret. It took years of facilitation in secret. And actually that dialogue process went five and a half years. But part of what happened as an effect of it, and this is, again, many dialogue groups are kind of one time things that people get together and try to meet the other side and humanize the other, and have an experience of contact that is positive with the other side. This was different. These were community leaders. These were women with big spheres of influence in their communities. And yet there were also activists and zealots and sort of true-believers on both sides. But under these conditions, they were able to meet and have conversations and really come to respect each other profoundly and care for each other.

And even today, 25 years later, they're still in a relationship. They still get together and celebrate, you know, grandchildren and graduations and things. So they came to really love each other, despite these profound differences that they had, but it was hard work. It was dangerous work under those conditions. But they were willing to do it. And because they were influential women, they, you know, they changed the discourse. They changed the language that was used in their activism. They really helped each other prevent violence. And they found common ground in a lot of areas. So, that in particular started acutely toxic, right? It was in a very toxic time and an acutely dangerous time. But through this process, they were able to bring the temperature down and move things in a much more constructive direction. And they believe that it had an effect nationally, on the kind of national discourse and temperature around these issues.

The other story that you allude to is Watertown New York. I learned of this because my colleague, Amanda Ripley, who's a journalist, wrote a piece in the Atlantic which profiles Watertown New York, which I'd recommend. And they characterize it as one of the most politically tolerant counties or towns in America, because there was a study that was done of political tolerance in the 3030 counties in America. And there is a 1%, you know, of the most tolerant, because they vary quite a bit. And this place is Watertown New York, which is in Jefferson County, which is in the heart of Trump country, went for Trump in 2016, by 20 points, I think by 30 points in the next election. So it's a, you know, there's a army base there and it's a staunch conservative space, but it's a place where people tolerate one another and there are reasons for that.

And part of it is that there is a high incidence of what we would call mixed marriages of Republican and Democrats marrying. It used to be that there were more of those. They too have been on the decline for decades, but there it's about one in four marriages are mixed, right? So, in those families, not only can the, you know, the spouses tolerate one another, but the kids are exposed to conversation of difference. And that is good for democracy, right? It's good for the future. Our progeny being exposed to, you know, friendlier, constructive debate and differences. But it's not just in the marriages. There are many spaces there. For example, one of the things that struck me is that they have a Monday breakfast. It was run by a clergyman who, he'd hold breakfast every Monday. He'd cook it himself. He said it was a great breakfast. And he'd invite red and blue people in to talk politics. And he said that the key was that it was ongoing, that people kept coming back. He said it was largely because the breakfasts were awesome. But he said, they had conversations, not just a quick conversation and not just the talking points, but he said, we would talk long enough until we realized what we didn't know and what we didn't understand.

And that's so key, right? Because so many of the things, including abortion that we talk about these days are immensely complicated issues, legal dimensions, religious dimensions, moral dimensions, you know, issues of health and physiology and science. It's a really complex set of things. And when we simplify it down to these sort of two sides, we just don't understand what we're talking about. Right. And then it's really just positional and it's not a true conversation. But to break through that and have real conversations and to start to come to terms with what you don't understand and don't know, and maybe learn things from one another, that takes time and it takes persistence. And sometimes it takes facilitation and having people in the room that can keep things reasonable enough, that we can continue the conversation.

17:48: Serena Balani:

You say that political shocks could provide ideal conditions to curb polarization. Could you elaborate a little bit on this?

17:56: Dr. Peter Coleman:

Yeah. So right now, as we're supposedly coming out of COVID, which I think we are, but it's the fourth or fifth time, so it's hard to know for sure. But as we're coming out of that time, and as we're trying to reset, and as we're post January 6th and the storming of the American capital. As these destabilizing factors have changed our lives, this is a time when people are more open to reconsidering what to do and to change course. But one of the most important things that people need to do when they're destabilized like this, and they're not happy with the status quo is they need to have some clarity about what the alternatives are. What are the things that I change in my life to make a difference and to move in a new direction. That is why I wrote this book called The Way Out, because I felt like this pattern of political polarization we're in is a long term pattern, but we're in a time of instability and destabilization and exhaustion.

You know, there is documented what they call the exhausted middle majority. Most of us in the middle are fed up with the vitriol and the hate and this dysfunction in Washington. And we want something else. That's a good thing. If we, if people know what to do. And I felt that there had been great analyses of the problem of polarization or the, you know, the constellation of factors that contribute to it, but not much insight into what to do and what are the alternative paths. And that's really what my book is organized around. And I sort of cherry picked from science, five principles that can be enacted in your life, in your relationships, in your business, in your work, in your community, and can scale up, that offer you sort of different choices, right? Alternative choices that you can make in your life that could help you move in a different direction and could help our communities move in a different direction.

And so, you know, certainly for your audiences who are interested in propaganda and media and the effects of social media, it is about consciously questioning what those are. It is about moving out of our comfort zone and listening to media that maybe challenges our assumptions. Not to crazy media. I don't mean listen to, you know, I don't mean go to the insane sides. I mean, just find people on social media, on mainstream media who have different political views from you, but who you feel are intelligent, well informed and well intentioned, right? They're decent people, but you differ from them politically. I have intentionally done this in my life. I have about five people when the news breaks and something of interest is happening. I intentionally seek out their voices, their Twitter feeds, because I wanna know how they're thinking about this and is there information there that would be useful for me. Because it's so easy just to go to your two channels and listen to the people that talk your talk and share your values. And that's a comforting thing that we do, but it's part of the problem.

Because the world isn't comfortable. And it is important that we recognize that all of these choices and all of these policy changes that are being proposed, have trade offs and consequences. And the more mindful we can be of those, the better. So I offer in the book, you know, I end by with a set of new rules or basically nudges that are scientifically based things that you can do to, once you feel triggered to go into your comfort zone, maybe try to nudge yourself out of it. And try some different ways to get different information, to experience some different feelings, to have some different kinds of relationships in your life that can help you be a better, more compassionate American, who's still engaged in the political process.

22:02: Serena Balani:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Peter Coleman, social psychologist and author of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. Dr. Coleman, thank you so much for joining us today.

22:16: Dr. Peter Coleman:

It was great fun. Thank you for the opportunity. And please reach out to me. If anyone is interested in trying to understand what to do.