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Interventions reducing affective polarization do not necessarily improve anti-democratic attitudes

Abstract

There is widespread concern that rising affective polarization—particularly dislike for outpartisans—exacerbates Americans’ anti-democratic attitudes. Accordingly, scholars and practitioners alike have invested great effort in developing depolarization interventions that reduce affective polarization. Critically, however, it remains unclear whether these interventions reduce anti-democratic attitudes, or only change sentiments towards outpartisans. Here we address this question with experimental tests (total n = 8,385) of three previously established depolarization interventions: correcting misperceptions of outpartisans, priming inter-partisan friendships and observing warm cross-partisan interactions between political leaders. While these depolarization interventions reliably reduced affective polarization, we do not find compelling evidence that these interventions reduced support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence or prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means. Thus, future efforts to strengthen pro-democratic attitudes may do better if they target these outcomes directly. More broadly, these findings call into question the previously assumed causal effect of affective polarization on anti-democratic attitudes.

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Fig. 1: Effects of the friendship intervention and the misperception correction intervention on affective polarization and anti-democratic attitudes, study 1.
Fig. 2: Effects of the misperception correction intervention on affective polarization and anti-democratic attitudes, study 2.
Fig. 3: Effects of the warm elite relations intervention on affective polarization and anti-democratic attitudes, study 3.

Data Availability

The data for our studies are openly available via https://osf.io/n5u9d/.

Code Availability

The analysis scripts for our studies are openly available via https://osf.io/n5u9d/.

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Acknowledgements

The authors received funding for this project from the Civic Health Project (R.W.), the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (R.W.) and the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University (J.N.D.). This work is supported under a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship (J.G.V.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Contributions

J.G.V., J.C., M.N.S., J.S.M., C.R., S.L.P., J.N.D., D.G.R. and R.W. designed the studies. J.G.V., J.C., M.N.S., J.S.M., C.R., S.L.P. and R.W. collected the data. J.G.V. analysed the data. J.G.V. and D.G.R. wrote the manuscript. J.C., M.N.S., J.N.D. and R.W. provided comments on the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jan G. Voelkel or Robb Willer.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information

Nature Human Behaviour thanks Eric Groenendyk, Omer Yair and Magdalena Wojcieszak for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary information on pilot study 1, supplementary information on pilot study 2, supplementary information on descriptive statistics, supplementary information on main and moderating effects of partisan identity, supplementary information on correlational statistics for the joy-of-destruction game, Tables 1–21 and Figs. 1–18c.

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Voelkel, J.G., Chu, J., Stagnaro, M.N. et al. Interventions reducing affective polarization do not necessarily improve anti-democratic attitudes. Nat Hum Behav 7, 55–64 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01466-9

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