An Online experiment during the 2020 US–Iran crisis shows that exposure to common enemies can increase political polarization

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  • Eaman Jahani
  • Natalie Gallagher
  • Merhout, Friedolin
  • Nicolo Cavalli
  • Douglas Guilbeault
  • Yan Leng
  • Christopher A. Bail

A longstanding theory indicates that the threat of a common enemy can mitigate conflict between members of rival groups. We tested this hypothesis in a pre-registered experiment where 1670 Republicans and Democrats in the United States were asked to complete an online social learning task with a bot that was labeled as a member of the opposing party. Prior to this task, we exposed respondents to primes about (a) a common enemy (involving Iran and Russia); (b) a patriotic event; or (c) a neutral, apolitical prime. Though we observed no significant differences in the behavior of Democrats as a result of priming, we found that Republicans—and particularly those with very strong conservative views—were significantly less likely to learn from Democrats when primed about a common enemy. Because our study was in the field during the 2020 Iran Crisis, we were able to further evaluate this finding via a natural experiment—Republicans who participated in our study after the crisis were even less influenced by the beliefs of Democrats than those Republicans who participated before this event. These findings indicate common enemies may not reduce inter-group conflict in highly polarized societies, and contribute to a growing number of studies that find evidence of asymmetric political polarization in the United States. We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for research in social psychology, political conflict, and the rapidly expanding field of computational social science.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19304
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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© 2022, The Author(s).

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