Exposure to Common Enemies can Increase Political Polarization: Evidence from an Experiment with Automated Partisans
Online Presentation, October 06, 2020
As part of the Suessmilch Lecture series, Chris Bail from Duke University presented the results of an experiment where 1,670 Republicans and Democrats in the US were asked to complete a collaborative online task with a bot that was labelled as a member of the opposing party.
“Exposure to Common Enemies can Increase Political Polarization: Evidence from an Experiment with Automated Partisans”
Longstanding theory indicates a common enemy can mitigate conflict between members of rival groups. In this presentation, I will describe the results of a pre-registered experiment my colleagues and I conducted where 1,670 Republicans and Democrats in the United States were asked to complete a collaborative online task with an automated agent or "bot" that was labelled as a member of the opposing party. Prior to this task, we exposed respondents to primes about a) a common enemy (involving threats from Iran, China, and Russia); b) a patriotic event; or c) a neutral, apolitical prime.
Though we observed no significant differences in the behavior of Democrats as a result of these primes, we found that Republicans—and particularly those with very strong conservative views—were significantly less likely to cooperate with Democrats when primed about a common enemy. We also observed lower rates of cooperation among Republicans who participated in our study during the 2020 Iran crisis, which occurred in the middle of our data collection. These findings indicate common enemies may not reduce inter-group conflict in highly polarized societies, and contribute to a growing number of studies that find evidence of asymmetric political polarization. We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for research in social psychology, political conflict, and the rapidly expanding field of computational social science.
© 2023 by Chris Bail
About the speaker
Chris Bail is Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab. He studies political tribalism, extremism, and social psychology using data from social media and tools from the emerging field of computational social science. Chris Bail has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Carnegie Fellow. His research appears in leading journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science Advances, the American Journal of Public Health, and the American Sociological Review.