Feature Story | 12-Apr-2022

Bridging divides in an age of identity

New York University

“Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today,” the Pew Research Center concluded weeks after the 2020 presidential election. 

Pew’s studies, conducted in the years leading up to last year’s campaign, revealed an “increasingly stark disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement and a long list of other issues.” 

More specifically, Pew’s October 2020 survey found that only about 20 percent of backers of Joe Biden and Donald Trump thought that their opposites shared core American values. Approximately 90 percent of both Biden and Trump voters said a victory by the opposing candidate would bring “lasting harm” to the United States.

The subsequent insurrection on January 6, 2021, in which Trump backers violently sought to prevent congressional certification of Biden’s election, served to not only confirm what Americans had been telling pollsters, but also revealed that division in the United States had previously been understated. 

In fact, some have noted that this divide, often over cultural differences, had been years in the making. And polarization has been driven by both conservatives and progressives, Damon Linker concluded in an analysis in the Week earlier this year. 

Much of this has been fueled by the outsize role political identity now plays in our perceptions, research suggests. A 2020 analysis published in Science, co-authored by NYU’s Jay Van Bavel and Joshua Tucker, found that, for the first time on record, negative sentiment for the opposition outstripped positive feelings for one’s own partisan affiliation. They introduced a new concept, “political sectarianism,” to describe the phenomenon in which political identity is primary and composed of three fundamental elements: seeing the other side as different, dislikeable, and immoral.

Despite these trends, Van Bavel and others see the potential of identity’s strength to bring us together. These lessons extend well beyond politics, covering topics ranging from soccer to university identities and from nationality to large organizations. It might just be a matter of rethinking groups to harness the power of belonging and emphasize what we share. 

“Things can get truly ugly when the loss of any sense of shared identity as citizens combines with a group’s belief in its own righteousness, leading its members to think that playing by the rules is foolish or that the other side must be stopped at all costs,” Van Bavel, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and Lehigh University’s Dominic Packer write in their new book, The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony. “We believe that these toxic patterns are products of standard group and identity dynamics but that these bad outcomes are by no means inevitable. Intergroup interactions and politics do not have to be this way.”

In the book, Van Bavel and Packer explore how identity works and how it can be used to overcome bias, boost cooperation and productivity, and spur action to address social crises like the current pandemic. Notably, Van Bavel and his colleagues published a study earlier this year on “brain synchrony,” uncovering what happens neurologically when people work together on teams. 

“People can bridge divides and improve performance if they leverage the power of a shared identity,” he observes.

Drawing upon his research and related scholarship, Van Bavel outlined for NYU News some practical, science-backed tips for bridging divides and building effective groups.

Creating a sense of shared identity is easy.

“In one of the most famous studies in social psychology, researchers randomly assigned people to two groups—essentially flipping a coin to create them. Within minutes of joining a group, people were willing to share more economic resources to members of their own group than the out-group.

“My own research has found the same pattern. The minute people are part of a team, you can observe differences in their brain activity and behavior. People are more interested in becoming friends with ingroup members and express more empathy when they are in pain. We also find that simply being assigned to a mixed-race team can help overcome our biases—leading people to automatically feel more positive toward all of their in-group members.”

Build healthy social norms.

“One of the biggest myths about groups is that they inevitably lead to discrimination towards outgroup members. However, this is not always the case. When people join a group that cares deeply about diversity and inclusion it can lead them to embrace outgroup members.

“The key, then, is to foster and role model the norms you want ingroup members to uphold. It turns out that deeply identified group members will strive to embody those norms. This can lead to some surprising results—for instance, the more people identify as American, the more they strive to be a unique individual. Even individualism is itself a form of conformity to group norms!”

Embrace dissent.

“A major worry about groups is that they can lead to groupthink—where pressure to maintain social cohesion can suppress healthy disagreements. Many people have the false belief that group members are ‘either with us or against us.’ The reality could hardly be further from the truth: the people who care the most about group outcomes are often the people who are most willing to do the hard work of expressing dissent.

“Creating a culture with a diversity of opinions and constructive disagreement is one of the most critical elements of collective intelligence. Groups can build a community of dissent by  rewarding people for expressing constructive criticism or creative perspectives. People who ask smart questions and force members to think more deeply about the issues at hand improve group performance.”

Leadership is critical.

“Great leaders are people who build a sense of ‘us.’ The fundamental task of leadership is to mobilize collective action toward a shared goal. But this is impossible if people don’t feel a shared sense of purpose.

“One study found that the most successful politicians were those who embedded the language of shared identity in their political speeches. By using words such as ‘us’ or ‘we’ they built a sense of solidarity among followers—helping to mobilize a large group of people to vote or volunteer to help them achieve victory.”


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