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

Student Opportunities

All team members will approve and help with all conference or paper submissions and will be given opportunities to present at workshops and conferences. Team members will learn skills related to literature review, experimental design, IRBs about human subjects research, statistical analysis, presentation and communication, mentorship and teamwork.

The ideal composition of the team would include 2 postdocs, 2-3 graduate students and 4-5 undergraduates. The most relevant majors or backgrounds will be in psychology, education, political science, public policy, ethics and philosophy, although other disciplines could be relevant. Graduate students will mentor undergraduates and lead sub-groups.

The team will meet weekly to discuss progress, plan for the following week and exchange feedback. All team members will participate in these weekly exchanges as well as in smaller research groups working on sub-projects led by graduate students and postdocs. A project manager will ensure that projects run smoothly, budgets are monitored and reports are filed.

Team progress will be evaluated mainly on the basis of publications and submissions as well as success in securing additional funding. Students receiving course credit will be graded on the basis of regular constructive participation in team and sub-group meetings; help on team research and publications; and final projects for independent studies with team leaders.


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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

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

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Aaron Ancell, Trinity - Philosophy-PHD
Jordan Carpenter, Kenan Institute for Ethics*
David Malone, Arts & Sciences-Program in Education
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Philosophy*
Jesse Summers, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Other - A&S*

Graduate Team Members

Zachary Banov, Bioethics and Sci Policy - AM

Undergraduate Team Members

Rose Graves, Neuroscience (AB)
Kendrik Icenhour, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Noah Lanier
Jerry (JJ) Moncus, Philosophy (AB)
Sarah Sculco, Philosophy (AB)
Hira Shah
Amelia Steinbach

* denotes team leader


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