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INTERVIEW: Daniel Stone on UNDUE HATE
Issue 73: Our new interview format probes deeper into the minds of authors. This week, Dan Stone shares insight into his new book, UNDUE HATE.
Does hatred cause irrationality or is it the other way around?
This week, we interview Daniel Stone, Associate Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College, whose behavioral economics research focuses on belief formation, political media, and polarization. He is the co-creator of MediaTrades.org, and a Stanford University "Strengthening Democracy Challenge" winner.
In his new book, UNDUE HATE: A Behavioral Economic Analysis of Hostile Polarization in US Politics and Beyond, Daniel tackles the biases underlying the alarming levels of affective polarization and emotional hostility between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. Books on polarization are hardly new, but Daniel uses mathematical concepts and models from economics to offer a unique perspective on how we misjudge and develop animosity towards people we disagree with, both in political and nonpolitical matters.
His book doesn't stop at highlighting the problem— Daniel also provides practical short and long-term solutions for mitigating biases based on false perceptions and minimizing their detrimental effects. We want to underscore that the key issue here is is that the perceptions driving intergroup conflict are, at least in part, false and irrational. This is very different from genuine disagreements about policy that are an important and healthy part of any democracy. We have written about the same issue ourselves for the BBC.
After keeping our standard interview questions the same for over a year, we decided that they needed a refresh — this is our first author interview with some spicier questions! Let us know what you think of the new interview questions and if you have a suggestion for an interview question, reply to our newsletter via email. We love to hear from you!
What does your book teach us about social identity or group dynamics?
My book argues that intergroup conflict is often driven by false beliefs about out-groups in the same way that conflict within groups is often driven by misperceptions individuals hold about one another. People fight within groups, not just between them, all the time. Members of the same family, neighborhood, and academic department often develop animosity and sometimes end up completely estranged. And conflict in general is often driven by misunderstanding, whether it's between tribes or between siblings within a tribe.
My book is about how these conflicts - whether between groups or individuals - are exacerbated by a bunch of biases that tend to make our disagreements more disagreeable than they "rationally" should be. Since group conflicts have this in common with all conflicts, group conflicts aren't just about groups.
What is the most important idea readers will learn from your book?
That often when we dislike another person or group of people we are misjudging them - by our own standards - and the more we dislike them, the worse (more inaccurate) our misperceptions are likely to be. We can be objectively wrong about our subjective interpersonal feelings (subjective in that they're based on subjective criteria for whether or not to like another person and to what degree). I'm going to cheat here and add a related 'most important idea': there are lots of causes of this mistake, many more than most of us realize, and that's what makes the mistake more common than we realize.
I think the main point here is intuitive, but I hope framing it this way, and more formally in the book, clarifies what's often a murky intuition on the distinction between 'rational' and 'non-rational' polarization. And the point isn't always that intuitive. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Noble Prize winner Daniel Kahneman notes that hatred causes irrationality (not the other way around, as I argue in my book) and Ezra Klein's "Why We're Polarized" essentially argues that polarization is rational.
Why did you write this book and how did writing it change you?
I wrote it because I thought I had a book's worth of things to say and putting them all in one place would be useful and enhance the impact. I also wanted to reach a broader audience beyond academia - and to make some arguments without worrying about the song and dance often necessary for how articles are reviewed.
How did writing it change me? That's a neat question I haven't been asked before. One thought is that - while beforehand I was far from sure about doing this - I enjoyed the process and writing the book made me recognize the value of book-writing for organizing and recording one's thoughts, and pushing yourself to do careful research and thinking on issues you're interested in. I recommend that all academics, and maybe just about everyone, at least seriously consider trying it at some point.
What will readers find provocative or controversial about your book?
My editor asked that I drop a few of the more provocative parts. I suppose revealing this is a bit provocative.
I think some people will criticize me for my attempt to be non-partisan and my focus on biases that I think affect both sides of the aisle. I do discuss and try to explain why I avoid analyzing asymmetries between the parties, but I have a feeling some people will find it unacceptable that I don't explicitly call out bad actors.
At the end of the book I call for an 'Anti-Polarization Manhattan Project' - mobilization of resources at the top level of government recognizing the problem and working on solutions - this might strike some people as provocative (and naive!). But I do think affective polarization is clearly our country's biggest problem, since it causes so many other problems and prevents us from solving other problems, and even threatens democracy, so it seems absurd to me that our leaders aren't talking about solving it. One could argue that that's because they benefit from the status quo - I'm not so sure about that but even if so we could pressure them to act.
Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas (e.g., three tips for the real world)?
1. As a rule of thumb: cut your hate in half. (I'm not saying "don't hate" - but don't hate as much as your instincts tell you to, or at least try to hate with intellectual humility).
2. Remember we are often ambassadors for our side (or what is perceived as our side). For example, if you're driving a Prius in Alabama, you might be careful not to cut anyone off. Especially if you have a Biden sticker on there. And try to be a good ambassador as often as you can. Talk to people on the other side. Be kind, ask questions, don't lecture. Try to understand them, not persuade them. Remember we can learn from them more often than we realize - our differences can be strengths - and that sometimes we need to accept our differences. Accept uncertainty. Play "tit for two tats" (forgive or ignore the first transgression, it might be noise, don't immediately "punish").
3. Support smart structural changes that will reduce polarization like Final 5 Voting, Fusion Voting, multi-member districts - and support politicians looking to make these types of changes.
News and Updates
As we were putting this column together, Jay was interviewed for the New York Times about this exact issue—how much could we decrease partisan animosity just by anchoring people on reality? His research on misinformation, fact-checking, and polarization was cited in this article in the NYT. He noted:
“A good chunk of affective polarization is delusion or based on misperceptions. For instance, people have exaggerated stereotypes about the other party (and what members of the other party think of them), and when you correct those false perceptions, they quickly become less hostile.”
“correcting misinformation is extremely hard; the impact tends to be pretty small in the political domain, and the effects don’t last long.”
Our science communicator, Yvonne who helps write this newsletter recently started her internship at the Bipartisan Policy Center! While still working for The Power of Us, her research at BPC this summer will focus on cultivating common ground across political parties and crafting bipartisan solutions to advance housing and infrastructure policy in America.
There are 5 days left to purchase your ticket to the screening of our documentary film, The Power of Us: Protecting Democracy in a Time of Extreme Polarization! Our film was selected to screen at the 2023 Astoria Film Festival in New York along with 8 other short films on June 11th, 12:30pm at the Kaufman Zukor Theatre in Astoria, Queens.
There will be a live Q&A with both Jay and Dom in appearance after the screening. Please join us there to watch the film, ask questions, or just say hi.
Buy your ticket on Film Freeway, and we hope to see you there!
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