We are Not as Polarized as we Think

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The FINANCIAL — A major international study on political polarization found that people across the world often exaggerate political differences and negative feelings of opposing political groups. Explaining the true feelings of the other side might help reducing these negative perceptions. These findings are now published in Nature Human Behaviour. UvA early-career researchers Bojana Većkalov and Sandra Geiger were part of this international collaboration of more than 80 researchers, according to University of Amsterdam.

In recent years, there is an expanding belief that political polarisation is growing in the US and around the world. Members from different political groups would have increasing negative perceptions of each other. A study by Harvard psychologists however found that members of political groups in the US significantly overestimated the negative perceptions they believed were held by people from other political groups. Presenting the true perceptions of opposing groups, would furthermore reduce these negative perceptions according to the study. Both conclusions have had a major impact on discussions about polarization in the US but it remained unclear whether these findings hold in other countries, especially those with multi-party systems.

People across the world overestimate the divide between political groups

A major international collaboration of 82 authors from 42 institutions tested the generalisability of the findings of the Harvard study, building on an extensive, cross-national sample, including 10,207 people in 26 countries. Led by Dr Kai Ruggeri from Columbia University, and with participation from UvA early career researchers Bojana Većkalov and Sandra Geiger, the team found that the results hold true in almost all locations tested, including the Netherlands. This means that people across the world may perceive the divide between political groups on opposite ends of a discussion as greater than it might be. For ten countries, the team also found that explaining the true views of opposite groups had some impact on reducing how negative the misperceptions were, University of Amsterdam notes.

Unique role of students and early career researchers

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Particularly unique about this study is the crucial role of students and early career researchers from over 40 countries in the collaboration, including Bojana Većkalov and Sandra Geiger. Many young researcher had this opportunity thanks to the Junior Researcher Programme, an organization aimed at creating opportunities for the personal and professional development of young psychologists and behavioural scientists who strive towards scientific careers.

Bojana Većkalov, PhD candidate at the UvA Department of Psychology (social psychology group), was responsible for initial design and team coordination, as well as part of the country teams for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. ‘Being part of this project was a very exciting challenge. Adapting the study to 26 different national contexts brought forward the importance of balancing both staying true to the original study, as well as making your replication relevant for the social context you’re conducting research in. This project also highlights how motivated students and early career researchers can make meaningful contributions to psychological science through being part of large team science endeavours.’, Većkalov states.

Sandra Geiger, teacher at the PPLE of the University of Amsterdam and PhD student at the University of Vienna, led the German research team. ‘What makes me especially excited about this study is that it highlights once more the immense potential of big team science. Clearly, such a large-scale collaboration across 26 countries would not have been possible without the more than 80 researchers from all around the world. I am very grateful that I got the chance to be part of this project and contribute a small step toward making psychological science more rigorous and representative of the world’s population’, says Geiger.

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