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Is Personal Adversity Contributing to Political Polarization?

Summary: According to a new study, unexpected life events ranging from relationship stress to illness can lead to political polarization, pushing moderate thinkers to more extreme wings of their parties and political views.

Source: University at Buffalo.

Unexpected life events ranging from illness to relationship stress can lead to political polarization, pushing moderates toward the spectrum’s extremes, according to a recently published study that’s breaking new ground on personally-experienced adversity and its effect on political attitudes.

Though a handful of studies have explored the effect of community-wide tragedies on personal beliefs, this current research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, looks exclusively at self-reported personal experience, a phenomenon that can produce different responses than what happens in the wake of collective events, such as reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The paper is among the first to take research on uncertainty theory outside of the laboratory in favor of examining personal, real-world situations.

“We’re talking about people’s experience with adversity broadly construed,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study led by Daniel Randles, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

“It’s the cumulative effect of adversity. These feelings of uncertainly can have us adopting more extreme attitudes as a way of coping with that uncertainty,” adds Poulin.

“What we found isn’t like a light switch,” says Randles. “Most people experience occasional adversity and it doesn’t drive them to extreme positions. But repeated events seem to add up, nudging someone closer to their preferred view.”

To test their hypothesis, the research team used a representative sample of about 1,600 Americans and asked them to complete surveys toward the end of 2006, 2007 and 2008. The researchers asked participants about their political attitudes and personal adversity experiences to learn if those attitudes changed following these stressors.

There were about 37 negative events in the questionnaire, such as injury, bereavement or assault. The idea was to acquire a big picture of adversity and consider the different situations that could have upset people.

Image shows the Capitol Building.

“Our results suggest increased polarization towards both the left and the right, with a slightly greater tilt toward conservative attitudes,” says Poulin. “Our surveys were done toward the end of the second George W. Bush administration, so supporting the War on Terror was considered a conservative policy, but I’m not sure in a vacuum that’s the right label. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

“Our results suggest increased polarization towards both the left and the right, with a slightly greater tilt toward conservative attitudes,” says Poulin. “Our surveys were done toward the end of the second George W. Bush administration, so supporting the War on Terror was considered a conservative policy, but I’m not sure in a vacuum that’s the right label.

“The polarization piece was much stronger,” he says.

Because of that possible limitation, Poulin says future directions might consider a broader sampling of attitudes that aren’t necessarily time and situation specific.

“I also think it would be interesting to see this idea applied to a wider swath of political attitudes,” says Poulin. “Name a social issue and ask if it works the same way. I’d hypothesize, yes. But we don’t know.”

About this psychology research article

Source: Bert Gambini – University at Buffalo
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Experienced Adversity in Life Is Associated With Polarized and Affirmed Political Attitudes” by Daniel Randles, Steven J. Heine, Michael Poulin, and Roxane Cohen Silver in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online January 19 2017 doi:10.1177/1948550616675668

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University at Buffalo “Is Personal Adversity Contributing to Political Polarization?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 27 March 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/personal-adversity-politics-6296/>.
University at Buffalo (2017, March 27). Is Personal Adversity Contributing to Political Polarization?. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved March 27, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/personal-adversity-politics-6296/
University at Buffalo “Is Personal Adversity Contributing to Political Polarization?.” http://neurosciencenews.com/personal-adversity-politics-6296/ (accessed March 27, 2017).

Abstract

Experienced Adversity in Life Is Associated With Polarized and Affirmed Political Attitudes

Many studies find that when made to feel uncertain, participants respond by affirming importantly held beliefs. However, while theories argue that these effects should persist over time for highly disruptive experiences, almost no research has been performed outside the lab. We conducted a secondary analysis of data from a national sample of U.S. adults (N = 1,613) who were followed longitudinally for 3 years. Participants reported lifetime and recent adversities experienced annually, as well as their opinions on a number of questions related to intergroup hostility and aggression toward out-groups, similar to those used in many lab studies of uncertainty. We anticipated that those who had experienced adversity would show more extreme support for their position. There was a positive relationship between adversity and the tendency to strongly affirm and polarize their positions. Results suggest that adverse life events may lead to long-lasting changes in one’s tendency to polarize one’s political attitudes.

“Experienced Adversity in Life Is Associated With Polarized and Affirmed Political Attitudes” by Daniel Randles, Steven J. Heine, Michael Poulin, and Roxane Cohen Silver in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online January 19 2017 doi:10.1177/1948550616675668

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