How to Cure Political Polarization by Asking Questions (2018-2019)


Incivility and antagonism infect our political and online cultures. One promising remedy is to construct a culture of questioning, where people ask and answer questions about each other’s views and reasons instead of parodying and abusing each other.

Most people today discuss controversial moral and political issues only among like-minded allies who do not press challenging questions. When we do ask opponents about their views, the answers are often slogans and quips that entrench stands, antagonize opponents and exacerbate disagreements.

Luckily, some recent studies suggest that people who are regularly called upon to answer the right kinds of questions will exhibit greater intellectual humility and be more likely to participate constructively in public discussions. But which questions are the right questions for encouraging mutual appreciation and understanding?

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will identify a range of questions, including questions not only about how policies work, what they cause and why we should adopt them, but also about causes of one’s beliefs, the strength of one’s arguments and how many others agree, as well as evidence, arguments and thought processes of opponents.

The project team will investigate which of these questions increase humility, empathy and openness as well as which questions raise barriers to constructive discourse, such as defensiveness and rationalization. The goal is to test the hypothesis that a culture that encourages people to regularly ask themselves and others the right questions will make people better at understanding their own or others’ points of view and, hence, at navigating an ideologically diverse world.

Team members will formulate questionnaires and administer them by programming web surveys and distributing in-person questionnaires. They will analyze data and develop written and oral presentations of findings for audiences both off and on campus, such as papers in professional journals, articles in campus papers and talks at conferences and on campus.

Anticipated Outcomes

Academic and popular presentations; academic papers reporting empirical findings and/or the philosophical issues they raise; website to facilitate research on polarization and aid data-gathering; materials for use in local high schools to help students discuss controversial topics in productive ways


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Test online results by running in-person studies in local community; translate discoveries into a training program for high schools
  • Spring 2019: Analyze data and write up results into papers and presentations

Team Outcomes to Date

How to Ask Questions (poster by Rose Graves, J.J. Moncus, Thomas Nadelhoffer, Walter Sinott-Armstrong, Gus Skorburg, presented at EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019 and at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019

How to Cure Political Polarization (talk by Rose Graves and JJ Moncus, EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019)

This Team in the News

To Get Along Better, We Need Better Arguments

Interdisciplinary Team Collaborates on Solutions to Political Polarization

KIE Senior Fellow Featured on Forbes – “Walls: Knocking Down The Barriers That Divide Us”

Walls: Knocking Down the Barriers That Divide Us

Asking Questions to Reduce Political Polarization

Reach Out, Listen, Be Patient. Good Arguments Can Stop Extremism

Asking Questions to Reduce Political Polarization: an On-Air Conversation with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Asking Questions to Reduce Political Polarization

Spotlighting Social Science to Address Political Polarization

The Beauty of a Good Argument with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

See earlier related team, How to Ask Questions (2017-2018).

Students asking questions

Team Leaders

  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Joshua Skorburg, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy

/graduate Team Members

  • Hannah Read, Philosophy-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Rose Graves, Statistical Science (BS)
  • Kendrik Icenhour, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Jerry (JJ) Moncus, Mathematics (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Aaron Ancell, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Jordan Carpenter, Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • David Malone, Arts & Sciences-Program in Education
  • Jesse Summers, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Other - A&S

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Laura Benson, Partnership for Children
  • The Right Question Institute
  • Better Angels Organization
  • North Carolina Leadership Forum