4 Science-Backed Strategies to Curb Partisan Animosity
Skip to content
Politics & Elections Organizations Dec 1, 2022

4 Science-Backed Strategies to Curb Partisan Animosity

Vilification of the other side is at a fever pitch. But research suggests ways to bridge the gap.

people building a bridge, with blue bricks from the left side and red bricks from the right side

Riley Mann

Based on the research of

Eli J. Finkel

and coauthors

Do political conversations at the Thanksgiving table feel tenser than they used to? Do social-media discussions of social issues seem nastier? Do you find yourself feeling angrier at your political opponents than ever before?

Add Insight
to your inbox.

It’s not just your imagination. Something really has changed in American politics, says Eli J. Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. Over the last five years in particular, “the two sides have grown to hate each other so much,” he says—to the point that nearly any tactic can be justified “to beat those Satan worshippers on the other side.”

The dangers of this partisan animosity are evident and playing out all around us, threatening our ability to address serious national issues and even jeopardizing the peaceful transfer of power. But as the problem has grown, so too have efforts to understand and combat it. Hundreds of academic papers have tested ideas about—and interventions to reduce—the partisan divide.

In new research led by Rachel Hartman and Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Finkel and his collaborators examined 200 of those publications to see what lessons they might offer as a whole. The researchers identified several common themes among efforts that succeed and fail in dampening partisan animosity. Here are a few of their key takeaways.

We’re Misunderstanding the Problem—and Each Other

When we talk about contemporary American politics, we often frame the problem as one of polarization—that is, we think the average lefty and righty have grown farther apart in how they think about key political issues. But public opinion polling suggests that’s not accurate, Finkel says: “It just hasn’t happened—not in any general sense.” Nor have we grown fonder of our own party members. The way people feel about their fellow Democrats and Republicans has remained relatively constant.

So, what’s different? “The major thing that’s changed is that we increasingly hate the other side,” Finkel says. In the 1970s, when pollsters asked voters to rate from zero to 100 their feelings about the average supporter of the opposing party, “you’d get something in the middle of the scale, about 50. Today, it’s closer to about 20.”

In other words, we’re not having an issues problem—we’re having a feelings problem that masquerades as a fight over policy. “Politicians and other political elites stoke our outrage over this issue or that issue at a given moment in time,” Finkel observes, “but the foundational issue is partisan animosity.”

This may explain why some of the most promising interventions to reduce partisan animosity the researchers identified focused on correcting misperceptions. For example, one study found that Republicans and Democrats overestimated the extent to which the other side dehumanized them—by as much as 300 percent. Correcting such misperceptions, other research has found, can reduce rates of animosity. Similarly, several studies found that exposure to political opponents’ personal experiences, as well as thoughtful arguments for their positions, softened people’s views of them.

“We don’t hate the other side because we understand what they stand for,” Finkel says. “We hate the other side because we have fabricated villains, misperceiving the average political opponent a caricatured zealot.”

Learning to Talk It Out

Another intriguing group of interventions focused on building relationships and dialogue skills. “This is one of the oldest ideas in the empirical social sciences—how do you have people interact in ways that reduce prejudice rather than exacerbate it?” Finkel explains.

Undergoing dialogue training, which emphasizes listening and curiosity rather than moralizing or persuading, could help to promote healthier dialogue, the researchers write. Several studies suggest that constructive conversation can increase people’s positive perceptions of their political opponents

“We’re only hearing from one side, and that side is very ideologically and socially slanted, and … that’s why things are getting so extreme and animosity is getting so strong.”

— Eli Finkel

Similarly, fostering positive interactions between liberals and conservatives can reduce animus. The researchers highlighted the work of the organization Braver Angels, which hosts discussion workshops for “reds” and “blues” that have been shown to significantly diminish animosity and increase support for depolarization.

Beware of the Backfire

Despite some promising strategies, trying to reduce political hatred is a delicate operation, and the researchers identified several types of interventions that had unintended consequences. For example, “one of the major ideas that everybody thinks should work is to get people out of their echo chambers,” Finkel says. Turns out, it’s not so simple.

For example, Finkel points to one study that attempted to reduce animosity by exposing people to social posts from political opponents, on the theory that “we’re only hearing from one side, and that side is very ideologically and socially slanted, and … that’s why things are getting so extreme and animosity is getting so strong.”

No dice: seeing tweets from political opponents not only failed to reduce animosity, “people started to hate the other side more.” To Finkel, this shows that simple brute-force exposure to opposing views isn’t enough—more sophisticated and nuanced approaches are needed.

Building a Healthier Political Culture

Many of the interventions that seemed to work best relied on people wanting to change—after all, it takes effort to attend a workshop or dialogue training, and anyone who does so has already shown they are interested in learning from the other side.

“I’m pretty concerned about that issue,” Finkel admits. “Because if you think the other side are literal Nazis, you aren’t going to be thinking, ‘How can I listen to them better?’ You’re going to be thinking, ‘How can I destroy them?’ I don’t feel confident that people who are drunk on the pleasure of vilifying the other side will be interested in learning if their vilification is incorrect.” Understanding how to motivate people who have entirely lost faith in their opponents is a question the literature has not yet answered.

But it’s vital to keep investigating so that we can turn down the temperature. To Finkel, that doesn’t mean we have to agree—in fact, he sees disagreement as essential. We just need to learn to do so in a way that doesn’t rely on distortion and dehumanization.

“I think our democracy can function with lots of disagreements. But I want us to be fighting over real stuff,” he says. “Make an effort to understand what the other side actually believes—and then fight it hard. Fight it even with mean words, but at least understand it as opposed to fighting these demons and villains that we have fabricated in our own heads.”

Featured Faculty

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Most Popular This Week
  1. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  2. 6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right Now
    Are we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
    inflatable dollar sign tied down with mountains in background
  3. How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
    Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
    employee presents to CEO in elevator
  4. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  5. How Offering a Product for Free Can Backfire
    It seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
    people in grocery store aisle choosing cheap over free option of same product.
  6. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  7. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  11. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  12. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  13. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  14. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  15. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
  16. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  17. How Will Automation Affect Different U.S. Cities?
    Jobs in small cities will likely be hit hardest. Check how your community and profession will fare.
    How will automation affect jobs and cities?
More in Politics & Elections