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The Perils of Affective Polarization

Our increasing desire to isolate ourselves from supporters of the opposite party can have dire consequences.

· 8 min read
The Perils of Affective Polarization
Photo by Alice Yamamura / Unsplash

A few years ago, I was a hardcore partisan. I spent most of my day surrounded by very smart people—lawyers, economics professors, successful businesspeople, and philosophers at Yale—who agreed with me and echoed everything that I wanted to hear about the dangers of big government (I’m a libertarian). My social media feeds, the news I consumed, and the books I read were full of the world’s smartest takes on why I was right.

Yet I was miserable. I was consumed by fear and anger towards the other side—all the progressives and conservatives who refused to see what was so blindingly obvious to me. My friendships suffered because I saw each conversation as binary: had I managed to move people towards libertarianism or not? If not, I judged the interaction a failure. Luckily, I didn't lose any close friendships, but many of my relationships were fraying; and none of them had the intimacy that I yearned for.

Fast forward five years and my political views haven't really changed, but the quality of my relationships has. I no longer live in an ideological echo chamber, and now celebrate the fact that my closest friendships are with people who see the world differently from me. My relationships are now about connection and a shared exploration of the world and search for truth, rather than simply about whether I can recruit more warriors for my side. I've let go of my anger towards both big government and the people who champion it, which frees up time and energy to contemplate the eternal mysteries of life and focus on the beauty of the world.

Affective polarization is defined as "the gap between individuals’ positive feelings toward their own political party and negative feelings toward the opposing party"—or in other words, our fear and anger towards the opposite political party. We often think of it as a societal problem. As I have argued elsewhere, it endangers our democracy, it puts us at each other’s throats, and stops politicians from working together with representatives from across the aisle; it is even, argues Martin Kariuki, a national security threat.

We therefore often think that affective polarization requires societal solutions. Here in the United States, we need to change how primaries are conducted, so that the most bombastic voices no longer get elected to Congress. We need to have more debates and townhalls, so that Democrats and Republicans (and members of other parties) can meet each other. We need to crack down on Russian propaganda that attempts to inflame our partisan divides.

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Those things are all true, but this focus on societal solutions overlooks a crucial factor: affective polarization is ultimately about individuals. Groups might hate and fear other groups, but those groups are made up of individuals. When we refuse to date across party lines or to make friends with people with whom we disagree, it is we as individuals who are hurt by the consequences. When we are affectively polarized, it's as though we're trapped in a marriage with a spouse we hate or fear. No one wants to live that way. Reducing affective polarization is not just in society's best interest, it is in our own best interest as individuals.

In his landmark study Resentment Is Like Drinking Poison? The Heterogeneous Health Effects of Affective Polarization, sociologist Micah Nelson attempted to quantify the negative effects of affective polarization on individuals' physical and mental health. Nelson analyzed a representative sample of 4,685 Americans. Each participant was asked to rate their general health as "excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor" and asked questions designed to determine their level of affective polarization: i.e., whether or not the opposite political party (Republican or Democrat) made them feel "frustrated," "angry," and/or "afraid." Nelson then controlled for other variables, including age, gender, ethnicity, income, education level, and health insurance status, to zero in on the specific correlation between health and affective polarization.

The findings were dramatic: a given individual's level of affective polarization was "directly negatively associated with health." In particular, "For each standard deviation increase in partisan negative emotions, health decreased by .206 standard deviations (p = .001) net of other factors." As Nelson put it: "today’s increasingly hostile and pervasive form of partisanship may undermine Americans’ health."

An additional danger of affective polarization is that the fear we feel can leave us feeling powerless—with obvious consequences for our mental health. Conservatives mocked progressives whose mental health cratered following the 2016 presidential election as suffering from "Trump Derangement Syndrome," but underneath the partisan one-upmanship was a real phenomenon. More and more of us are tying our happiness to the outcome of elections that we cannot control. In a 2016 Pew poll, 62 percent of highly engaged Republicans and 70 percent of highly engaged Democrats said that the other party made them feel "afraid." When our internal landscape is dictated by events happening in Washington, we are opening ourselves up to a world of suffering.

Affective polarization also cuts us off from human connection with vast swathes of our fellow Americans. The US is in the midst of what Surgeon General Dr. Vivek A. Murphy has called a "loneliness epidemic." An Advisory by the Surgeon General notes that "In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness." According to a 2018 study on loneliness by the Kaiser Family Foundation, over 20 percent of Americans say they "often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others."

And that was before a global pandemic shut down most social interactions and forced us all inside.

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Affective polarization exacerbates this epidemic. A 2021 study by the American Enterprise Institute found that 15 percent of American adults have ended a relationship over political differences. This number probably does not capture the full impact of politics on friendships, because many more friendships have probably significantly cooled over political differences. According to a 2017 Pew Institute study, roughly 55% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats say they have “just a few” or “no” close friends from across the aisle.

Affective polarization even hurts our ability to find love. When it comes to dating, we're increasingly looking for someone who votes like us. On eHarmony, 68 percent of women and 47 percent of men list their partisan affiliations on their dating profiles. One 2017 study looked at data from online dating sites to determine the extent to which we prioritize finding a partner who agrees with us on politics. The authors found that partisan matching increased the chances of a prospective couple exchanging messages by 9.5 percent—just over 1 percent less than having a similar level of education (10.6 percent). As an article in the Annual Review of Political Science puts it, "partisan sorting seems to be on a par with socioeconomic status, long considered the major basis for the selection of long-term partners." So many of us are lonely and looking for a romantic partner. We certainly don’t make it easier for ourselves when we preemptively screen out half our potential matches from consideration.

Of course, many people want a romantic partner who shares their values. Doesn't that mean that we should be looking inside our own political tribe? Not necessarily. Most Americans do share broadly similar values—it's only our hatred and fear of the other side that convinces us otherwise. In I Never Thought Of It That Way, Mónica Guzmán draws on the work of social psychologist Shalom Schwartz to argue that there is a finite set of human values (security, benevolence, universalism, etc.). These values are all shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by all humans. It's easy to think that Democrats and Republicans have different values, because they favor different policy solutions. But the only difference is which values we prioritize when we have to weigh them up against each other. For example, Republicans who want to secure the US border aren't blind to the plight of immigrants (benevolence) but may value security as a higher good. Democrats who want to open the border aren't blind to the dangers of criminals entering the United States (security) but may value caring for immigrants more.

Our increasing desire to isolate ourselves from supporters of the opposite party can have especially dire consequences for the marginalized. A recent PNAS Nexus study examined the connection between ideological polarization and health, with a special focus on people who were already in poor health. They looked at a representative dataset of 2,752 US residents and found that ideological polarization had a strong negative impact on the health of people who were already in poor health. The study looked at how different someone's views were from those of the median person in their state on a 1–10 scale, as well as how many days each person reported poor physical health out of the past 30. They found that among people who were already in poor health, those who scored a 10 (high) on the polarization scale suffered an average of 3.71 more days of poor physical health per month than those who scored a 0.

The authors write:

We find concerning evidence that polarization's strongest links to poor health occur among vulnerable residents experiencing frequent physical distress, many days a month. Polarization could lead to this outcome by deterring residents from connecting with friends and neighbors, due to diverging political and social views, such that when vulnerable residents need help in the event of illness, injury, pain, or other conditions, they have fewer sources of aid to turn to.

When we see friends and family who disagree with us politically through a lens of fear and anger, we're more likely to push them away, weakening our support network in the process. That can have especially negative consequences for people who don't have a strong social support network in the first place, or who need especially high levels of help from said network.

In a pluralistic democracy we have to interact with people on the other 'team.' Our friends, neighbors, and coworkers are probably not ideologically homogenous. When we think of them as bad people, our interactions get a lot more difficult. We get a lot lonelier and bitterer.

So, what can we do, as individuals, to reduce our affective polarization? Here are two suggestions.

If you’re in the US, I recommend attending a Braver Angels Depolarization Within workshop. Braver Angels is a grassroots movement focused on helping us to disagree more constructively, and workshops like Depolarization Within encourage people to "be critical [of the other side] without stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, or showing contempt." Seek out similar ventures near you, wherever you can find them.

A second strategy is to reduce our news consumption. Most media organizations sell fear and anger because that is the most effective way to get our attention. If it bleeds, it leads. But if you spend your days listening to shrill partisans proclaiming that Those Awful People want to end your way of life, you will be more likely to feel resentment and hostility towards your political outgroup.

There are ways to stay informed without buying the anger and fear that so many partisans are selling. Tangle, for instance, is a daily newsletter that offers informed commentary on the biggest news stories of the day, as well as smart responses from both left and right. Other sites that sell news without also outrage include DailyChatter and Ground News.

We don't need to win over a critical mass of our fellow citizens, gain an electoral victory, or pass a bill. When we reduce our own affective polarization, our own lives (and the lives of our friends and family) improve. We should all try to reduce the grip of affective polarization on our lives. This is a good thing for society—but just as importantly, it's a good thing for us as people.

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