Interdisciplinary Team Collaborates on Solutions to Political Polarization

January 3, 2019

Bass Connections team members.
Clockwise from left: Team discussion (courtesy of SSRI); Kenzie Doyle at the Bass Connections Showcase (by Beth Mann); Jordy Carpenter and Aaron Ancell (standing) with Jesse Summers and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (courtesy of Sinnott-Armstrong)

After a season of family gatherings that are supposed to be festive, many Americans complain that their holiday memories are marred by uncomfortable conversations or awkward attempts to avoid them. Sharp divisions in political and social beliefs are difficult to bridge. What if we could ask questions that would make us better at understanding different points of view?

Tackling the problem of polarization, Duke faculty and students on a Bass Connections project team are investigating which questions increase humility, empathy and openness as well as which questions raise barriers to constructive discourse.

Recently, one of the project’s team leaders appeared as a guest on WNCU’s radio program, The Measure of Everyday Life, hosted by Dr. Brian Southwell. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong discussed what polarization is, how it affects people and what potential solutions his Bass Connections team is coming up with.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of political polarization, team members from many different academic backgrounds have had to come together in order to analyze the issue from a variety of perspectives. “[Our] team includes philosophers and a mathematician and a data scientist and a political scientist and an education theorist and others,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “Part of the point of the team is that we each help everybody else.”

By working together and using quantitative and qualitative research methods, team members took full advantage of their complementary backgrounds. “Most people can’t know as many fields as are needed to approach these complex problems,” Sinnott-Armstrong added.

Our team includes philosophers and a mathematician and a data scientist and a political scientist and an education theorist and others. –Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

As undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members all worked alongside each other, the team came up with a number of solutions that cast a new light on how political polarization can be cured by asking the right questions. “One [solution] is to simply figure out which questions lead to constructive dialogue and which undermine and prevent constructive dialogue,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “[Sometimes] people are actually asking questions in order to get information and learn from the other person in order to work constructively with them, but the other person is reading it as an attempt to beat them and show them that they are wrong.”

But the skill of asking the right questions doesn’t come naturally to most people. To target this problem, the team will develop a training system to help people learn about effective communication.

Sinnott-Armstrong added that besides establishing educational programs in local schools, the team hopes to disseminate the idea that even a seemingly intractable problem such as political polarization can be cured.

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