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The Cause of Political Polarization in the U.S.: Is It Us or Is It Them?

This blog was originally created as a school assignment for Avital's Social Psychology course in Fall 2023 at Arizona State University. Additional content has been added to bring in the spiritual perspective and present solutions to the challenge of polarization and its effects.

Political polarization in the United States continues to increase (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 423) to the point where we have shifted from the discomfort of differing opinions to fear of the other party (Kleinfeld & Sobel, 2020). Polarization occurs when a group makes more extreme decisions than an individual member would have on their own (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 281). This is propelled by and continues to produce an us them mentality where we notice the differences between our own group and other groups more prevalently (p. 423). This helps the “us” feel safer, and the “them” get blamed. The “us” can also be taken on a more personal level to consider how we, as individuals and not just as a group, contribute to polarization. There are three potential causes of polarization in the U.S. that stem from “us” as individuals or groups and from outside pressures or “them.” First, polarization could be cultivated due to a human’s natural desire to want to belong to a group, claim a social identity, and maintain it due to cognitive dissonance. Second, how we as individuals and groups perceive life through belief in a just world and conflict reactance theory. Third, the influence of propaganda from “them.”

Us: Our Natural Desire for Social Identity and Maintaining it From Cognitive Dissonance

In order to grasp how polarization could occur, it is helpful to first understand what makes people want to be a part of a group, what that social identity can lead to, and how cognitive dissonance keeps us locked into that identity. Social identity is how we define who we are based on the groups we are members of, whether political, religious, regional, job, or hobby (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 423).

It is a natural desire to want to connect with other people and be a part of a group (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 264). Being part of a well-defined group gives our ego more structure and clarity in this world of unlimited possibilities. It is hard for the human mind to take in so much information, deal with ambiguity, and quickly know what we think and what actions to take. For this reason we form schemas to structure how we store knowledge (p. 60), and judgmental heuristics to store preferences so we can make decisions more quickly (p. 64). The groups we are in can influence those mental constructs. Whether we grew up around someone who was an alcoholic versus someone with a mental illness will alter our schema on whether we see someone drinking a bottle out of a paper bag as being an alcoholic or having a mental illness (p. 55). We are more likely to vote for a president who wants to stop illegal immigration from Mexico if we regularly hear our peers discuss how illegal Mexicans are the cause of the lack of resources in America. That becomes an availability heuristic (p. 64), making decisions based on what is at the top of our mind. It is natural for groups to become more homogenous (p. 267). Once we set a structure in place, we can feel more at peace. We will not want anything to disrupt that sense of peace. We may develop in-group biases, giving preferential treatment to our group members (p. 424). What political policies we support can be determined by the implicit, not consciously known, biases influenced by our group (De-Wit et al., 2019). Thus, we form a social identity out of natural human needs and deepen the definition of the group and ourselves through schemas, availability heuristics, in-group biases, and implicit biases.

With such a set structure in place, any thoughts, feelings, or actions we have or do that are not in alignment with that identity can threaten our self-esteem and cause us to feel cognitive dissonance (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 151). Humans have a natural desire to be right, but sometimes our desire to protect our self-esteem takes precedence (pp. 17-18). What helps us maintain our self-esteem is feeling like we are a good person (p. 16) and feeling like we are consistent (p. 151). This also aligns with the concept of belief perseverance, where we hold onto a judgment even if factual information is presented contrary to that belief (p. 95). Aronson and Tavris, in their article The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic, stress how hard it is for people to change their minds (Aronson & Tavris, 2020).

Dissonance can happen when you claim to be part of a political party and want to be fair and just, yet the leader of your party tweets sexist messages. It is very easy for someone to adopt the beliefs of the leader of their political party (Aronson & Tavris, 2020), yet what happens when that belief is not in alignment with your personal beliefs? There are three common ways we reduce the feeling of dissonance (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 151). The first is to change your behavior so it matches your cognitions. That could mean changing political parties or speaking up against what you do not believe in that your leader is doing. The second method of reducing the feeling of dissonance is to justify one’s behaviors by changing the meaning of the conflicting belief, like declaring those sexist tweets from your political leader can be considered a minor infraction, just “locker room talk,” or taken out of context (di Carlo, 2020, p. 48). Continuing along the line of justifying your behavior, the third common response to dissonance is to add a new cognition or variable as a way of understanding the behavior. That is when tweeting sexist comments becomes cool, a joke, or the important things to focus on are the other actions of the leader (di Carlo, 2020, p. 53; Prasad & McKelvey, 2019). The main idea to take away from how we respond to cognitive dissonance is that we can either change our behavior or justify our cognitions by ignoring or distorting contrasting information. When information feels overwhelming or unpleasant, we try to avoid the information (Vedantam, 2017). We also would not want to rock the boat by changing our behavior so we do not lose the sense of belonging to our group or the ego definition we created.

Using justification as the avoidance of cognitive dissonance propels someone to maintain their stance in a political party and become more and more extreme in their beliefs within that party. This stance gets exacerbated to the other political party simply by someone strongly holding onto a belief, but also because the belief may feel like an inflammatory judgment of them. This can create more pronounced stereotypes and generalizations, compelling someone to defend themselves against social identity threats (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 419) and once again getting even more defined in their party towards greater polarization. Simply calling out our differences can lead to conflict and further division among groups, as shown in the film A Class Divided (Peters, 1985). Another example of when self-justification comes alongside making small incremental adjustments to be more and more extreme happened in the Milgram Study (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 255). In the study, the participants who were called the teacher were asked to deliver a shock to the other participant, the learner, whenever they made a mistake. Note that there was no real shock being administered, and the learner was a confederate acting the role of being shocked. The participant was initially compelled to give the shock due to obedience of authority, yet once they took a stance on what actions they decided to take, and the amount of shock increased in small increments, what was to stop them from doing a little more and a little more? Just as the Milgram Study participants justified their actions to continue to progress, so can one’s polarized actions and beliefs within a political party. If we change our stance at any point along the way, that could cause cognitive dissonance.

The “us” as individuals progresses from a natural desire for belonging to a group and claiming a social identity to wanting to defend it from “them” and maintain that stance to avoid cognitive dissonance.


Us: Belief in a Just World and Conflict Reactance Theory Perception

How we react to the world around us and perceive it can be tied to political polarization. The perception that scarcity is a concern can lead to the realistic conflict theory and belief in a just world (BJW). The realistic conflict theory asserts that conflicts arise between groups due to problems with scarcity and cause more prejudice and discrimination (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 427). That concept can be accentuated by BJW, which is tainted by someone’s desire to believe if they do good things, then only good things will happen to them (p. 107). It is a way of eliminating the fear that something bad could happen to us and feeling like we have a sense of control over life (Siegler, 1996, p. 666). We then find ways to blame a victim for causing their problem or find someone to scapegoat for causing our problem. If we rationalize the situation of another or get rid of the scapegoat, then we reduce the threat that we too could experience the bad things they did, perceive outcomes as more predictable, and feel safe. This also leads to the feeling that what is fair or unfair for yourself (us) may be different than for others (them) (p. 667). Furthermore, this progresses into making those judgments based on what serves our own interests and makes us lose sight of the reality of the conditions for a group. It can be very natural to turn to BJW as it is shown to produce higher psychological well-being in terms of having lower depression and stress, and higher satisfaction in life (p .666). Belief in a just world is another technique to avoid cognitive dissonance, according to Lerner’s hypothesis (Lerner, 1965 as cited in Dittmar & Dickinson, 1993, p. 258).

Belief in a just world causes one to assert that a woman may have caused herself to be raped by being flirtatious beforehand (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 107). It can push us to believe that illegal Mexicans are the cause for diminishing resources or unemployment in the U.S., thus making stopping the entry of illegal immigrants our focus (Remarks by President Trump on the Illegal Immigration Crisis and Border Security – The White House, 2018). Interestingly, right-wingers who commonly hold that belief are shown through research to commonly turn to BJW, while left-wingers are just as likely to view the world as unjust (Dittmar & Dickinson, 1993, p. 264). BJW is correlated with having traditional morals and negatively correlated with accusing institutions of being corrupt (p. 265). That means we could have Republican right-wingers stating that what is happening in our capitalistic society with the wealthy getting wealthier is fair, and they do not need to be taxed at a higher rate. The Democratic left-wingers will feel this is an unfair system and that the rich should get taxed even more. Trump is known for inducing fear-arousing communication, yet he captures people’s attention because he does it alongside offering the BJW solution of protecting our borders from illegal Mexicans (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 199). Anything that creates a divide, like conflict realistic theory and belief in a just world, can further progress the claiming of our social-political identity and increase polarization.


Them: The Influence of Propaganda

Is food scarcity due to Mexicans using up our supplies or to food inaccessibility (Charles, 2020; Pathak et al., 2022; Paul, 2021)? The blame on Mexicans could just be a propaganda technique. Propaganda includes the deliberate manipulation of messages in the media to shift people’s beliefs and behaviors (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 247). It has the potential to exponentially increase political polarization. Even if we know the news may be swayed, we may still be drawn to it because of our natural desire to connect with other people and fear of missing out on what is happening with our community (Cappella & Tsfati, 2005; Shabahang, 2021). We do not even need our own confirmation bias to push us to only review the news that supports our position because echo chambers do that for us.

My interpretation of the article “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic” is that right-wing Republicans are not rational and intelligent and are in cognitive dissonance because of choosing not to wear masks or social distance based on their personal preference and not science (Aronson & Tavris, 2020). The journal this article comes from is typically rated left-wing (Interactive Media Bias Chart, 2023). During the pandemic, I was constantly sent resources from doctors, scientists, and researchers that support many of the claims on the lack of need for masks and social distancing some of which are made in the article “The Great Democide” from a peer-reviewed scientific journal (Stoller, 2023). I do not personally associate myself with any political party except to be able to register to vote. I do not normally read the news or scroll social media news feeds. I wore a mask even if I did not like it and saw evidence showing they do not work, but did so just in case it could help save lives and to make those around me comfortable. Thus, I do not know whether Aronson and Tavris’ article was deliberate propaganda, displaying cognitive dissonance, purposely avoiding information, and blaming the other party, if right-wingers really did review science before making the decision not to wear masks, or if the resources I saw were not valid. What I can share is the following: Multiple sources make claims that propaganda was at work influencing our beliefs during the pandemic (Jeff, 2020; Stoller, 2023).; When I searched for articles on Google with the same beliefs as the ones I was sent, I could not find them.; Facebook repeatedly locked me from my account without giving a clear explanation of why after I privately reshared some of those resources with a couple of other people.; There are multiple resources that break down how digital media echo chambers are set up to support the agenda of advertisers and those investing in it, and thus control what people see (Jeff, 2020; Mihalidis & Foster, 2021).; Resources get invalidated even when it seems that the researcher, scientist, or doctor has the same credentials as the opposing party (Stoller, 2023).; Stoller’s article can also be hard to swallow because he brings up so much at once that is contrary to popular belief, and while he shares a lot of resources to back up his findings, the article does not share proof of all the claims Stoller makes. With conflicting information in the media and the potential for misinformation, one can understand why someone may have a hard time believing what is called science in the media. Keeping all of that in mind, are right-wingers irrational and unintelligent, or do they just have a different view partially because of how they perceive the world, like belief in a just world, or because their internet feeds supply them with different information? In terms of polarization, the concern of whether that is true is not important. This is meant to show an example of where judgments show up around other parties that may not be true due to propaganda in the media, dividing us further into polarized groups.

The propaganda agendas get pushed out by someone owning a media source and controlling what messages get shared, massive purchasing of targeted ads, cognitive dissonance of the author, and social media algorithms limiting what people see according to those individual’s interests and those of their paying advertisers (Aronson & Tavris, 2020; Jeff, 2020; Mihalidis & Foster, 2021; Stoller, 2023). Being limited to one point of view becomes an availability heuristic producing perceptual salience, where that view becomes the dominant influence upon someone (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 103). This leads to a lack of competition in elections (Jeff, 2020; Mihalidis & Foster, 2021). There are higher normative pressures with the strength and immediacy of the presence of our group, supporting the social impact theory of greater conformity from social influence (Aronson et al., 2019, p. 236). We lose the opportunity for a minority influence to speak up against a party’s errors because we will only be presented with one-sided information on digital media (Aronson & Tavris, 2020; Aronson et al., 2019, p. 240, Jeff, 2020; Kleinfeld & Sobel, 2020). You cannot implement the contact hypothesis where exposure to people of other groups working together towards a common goal helps eliminate discrimination (Aronson et al., 2019, pp. 430-431). Propaganda can cause perceptual salience and the social impact theory alongside reducing our potential for minority influence and the contact hypothesis.

Through who owns the media, algorithms, and agendas implanted into the information presented, our society can quickly progress political polarization with the one-sided information we receive.


It is Us AND Them

Once we establish our social and political identity due to our natural desire for belonging and definition, cognitive dissonance can keep us locked into that belief structure and influence us to slowly get more extreme in our cognitions. In order to feel safety, control, abundance, and psychological well-being, we perceive our world through the realistic conflict theory and belief in a just world. Holding onto that identity and stereotyping other groups deepens political polarization. This polarization can then be exponentially propelled by propaganda just showing us one viewpoint that may not be accurate. It is both us and them causing political polarization in America due to our natural nature and the messages that are fed to us from them.



Additional Content:


Spirituality speaking:

            ALL of this is a distraction from connecting with Source and who you truly are inside. This is a fun evaluation to understand what has broken down our society so we can see specific steps to rebuild it. Polarization gets us fighting and in fear of a potentially limited supply on earth, which is not true. We can figure out how to take better care of our planet, help it rejuvenate itself, and get all the material supplies needed to those who need it.

            Consider every idea and belief is a construct we humans made up that does not have to be true. Consider this life can be like a movie we are creating as we go. It is quite entertaining to watch. What would you actually like your movie to feature? Remember, there are many puppeteers pulling the strings, guiding our beliefs to lead us in a certain direction for their self-gain. We can stop being puppets and continue to seek deeper truths.

            Our souls can never be harmed. We have a spirit side as well that does not perceive many things as issues that we think are problems. There is a perspective that can be had that can bring you more peace. It is the perspective that contains contentment, not denial, that is the true one.

            Whatever of this game of life you choose to play, you can do so with the understanding that the contrast helps you see different sides of God in order to regain connection once again with Source. Each moment of life can become an adventure of discovery. What will you see, learn, and become in the next step, and the next, and the next?


What can we do?

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."Abraham Lincoln

The division that has emerged in the U.S. only weakens us. It is time to break the allure of being separate and come back together as one united country.

1.     Be sure to connect with others in person. The more variety of community you bring into your life, the better. Do projects together working on a common goal like creating art, building something, playing sports, or raising money for charity. This is one of the top things to reduce polarization and the violence that comes with it when we gain greater understanding and respect for each other.

2.     Perform whatever self-growth, motivational, or spiritual practices inspire you. They will help you to find more peace within yourself, be more self-sustaining, and see the world more clearly, thus reducing the need for conflict.

3.     Draw your focus more to what you can do to make your life amazing. This will help you feel better, fill you up, and energize others towards excellence as well.





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Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Sommers, S. R. (2019). Social Psychology (10th ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.

Cappella, J., & Tsfati, Y. (2005, August 1). Why do people watch news they do not trust? The need for cognition as a moderator in the association between news media skepticism and exposure. Media Psychology, 7(3), 251-271. 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0703_2

Charles, D. (2020, April 3). Food shortages? Nope, too much food in the wrong places. NPR.

De-Wit, L., Van Der Linden, S., & Brick, C. (2019, July 2). What are the solutions to political polarization? Greater Good Science Center.

di Carlo, G. S. (2020). Trumping twitter: sexism in president trump’s tweets. Journal of Language and Politics19(1), 48–70.

Dittmar, H., & Dickinson, J. (1993). The perceived relationship between the belief in a just world and sociopolitical ideology. Social Justice Research, 6(3), 257-272.

Interactive Media Bias Chart. (2023). Ad Fontes Media.

Jeff, O. (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film].

Kleinfeld, R., & Sobel, A. (2020, July 23). 7 ideas to reduce political polarization. And

Mihalidis, P., & Foster, B. (2021). The cost of disbelief: Fracturing news ecosystems in

an age of rampant media cynicism. The American Behavioral Scientist (Beverly HIlls), 65(4), 616-631.

Pathak, A., Richards, R., & Jarsulic, M. (2022, August 11). The United States can end hunger and food insecurity for millions of people. Center for American Progress.

Paul, D. (2021, October 21). Food shortage the hoax we believe. In Unpopular

Peters, W. (Director). (1985). A Class Divided [Film].

Prasad, R., & McKelvey, T. (2019, November 28). How Trump talks about women - and does it matter? BBC.

Remarks by President Trump on the illegal immigration crisis and border security – The White House. (2018, November 1). Trump White House.

Shabahang, R., Aruguete, M. S., & Shim, H. (2021). Online news addiction: Future anxiety, fear of missing out on news, and interpersonal trust contribute to excessive online news consumption. Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies11(2), e202105-.

Siegler, I. C. (1996). The Importance of Distinguishing the Belief in a Just World for Self Versus for Others: Implications for Psychological Well-Being. PERSONALITY and SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY Bulletin, 22(7), 666-677.

Stoller, K. P. (2023, October 18). The great democide: How and why it happened. PriMera Scientific Surgical Research and Practice, 2(5), 02-18. 10.56831/PSSRP-02-066

Vedantam, S. (Host). (2017). Can You Handle The Truth?. [Podcast]. In Hidden Brain. NPR.

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