Just the facts: Information access can shrink political divide
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Political polarization in the U.S. is at its highest level in decades. This isn’t surprising, especially in the wake of the recent presidential election.

It’s hard to go on social media, much less cable news these days and not see reports that support one political side and vilify the other. Is there any hope for bringing the country closer together? We think so.


In a recent study, we found that the way information is presented can influence political polarization. When it is presented in a way that engages people in an objective analysis of the information at hand, political polarization can decrease. Yet when the same information provokes people to think about their relevant political preferences, people remain polarized.


In other words, people might moderate their views when they have more information on how a contentious policy works, but not if they’re busy thinking about what they want or why they want it.

In our study, we examined people’s views on the divisive issue of federal taxes. We found that providing a “taxpayer receipt” — an impartial, objective breakdown of how the government spends one’s tax dollars — decreases polarization regarding the perceived legitimacy of taxes.

After we showed a nationally representative sample the taxpayer receipt, the previously strong relationship between how conservative or liberal someone was, along with his or her view on taxes, virtually disappeared. Liberals were less satisfied with taxes than before, and conservatives were more satisfied than before. Both groups moved closer to the middle. 

However, this depolarization effect was fragile. It vanished if we simply asked people how they want their taxes to be spent when we showed them the receipt. People were equally polarized if we asked them about their preferences when presenting the facts as they were when we asked them about their preferences and showed them nothing.

The key lesson is that, in order for information to decrease polarization, it should be presented in the plainest, most impartial way possible. People are more open to update their views when they aren’t preoccupied with defending them.

Interestingly, the U.K. sends out tax receipts as a matter of policy to all taxpayers, while, in the U.S., this information is only available online (on the official White House website) for people who are motivated enough to seek it out.

Even if it makes a small difference, the U.K.’s policy is a relatively low-cost mechanism that could be explored in this country to help reduce political polarization about one important issue at the heart of the political divide. 

We should also consider ways to ensure that everyone has the same neutral facts and information in other areas. This could be particularly helpful — if not critical — as we transition to a new president. After all, polarization can lead to political deadlock, which may hinder necessary political reforms and slow economic growth. 

A forceful information campaign may rally support among people who already share the view put forth, but it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind. To close opinion gaps, it’s important to make sure people have the facts and the space to draw their own conclusions.


Erik Duhaime is a Ph.D. student and Evan Apfelbaum is an associate professor, both in the Work and Organization Studies Department at the MIT Sloan School of Management. They are coauthors of the paper, “Can Information Decrease Political Polarization? Evidence from the U.S. Taxpayer Receipt,” which was published this month in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.