Political Polarization Leads to Destructive Behavior

In societies that are highly polarized, voters behave with particular malice toward supporters of the opposing party. The Mannheim economist Wladislaw Mill and his colleague John Morgan were able to demonstrate this for the first time in an experimental study using the example of U.S. society.

In their study, which appeared in the journal Experimental Economics, the two authors examined whether and to what extent political polarization transfers to people’s nonpolitical behavior, specifically with regard to finances. The data was collected before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.  

The result of the study: Willingness to diminish another person’s wealth increases by 15 percent if the person is a voter from the opposing camp. This result was obtained by asking the participants whether they would be willing to receive a smaller sum of money in exchange for the representative of the opposing party suffering a financial loss.  

“Our study clearly demonstrates that in a highly polarized society, people act more aggressively and are potentially less willing to cooperate. So polarization can cause actual financial disadvantages,” summarizes study author WladislawMill, who as a behavioral economist is also interested in people’s “dark side.”  

The study also shows that Clinton voters had a stronger overall dislike of Trump supporters than vice versa: Democrats were 34 percent more likely to economically harm another person if that person was a Trump voter. So, apparently, Clinton supporters acted particularly spitefully toward Republicans. “We were very surprised by this result,” Millnotes. For Trump voters, on the other hand, there was no statistically significant effect of party affiliation on their decision. 

The U.S. was primarily chosen for the study because its starkly binary political system lends itself especially well to such an investigation. However, according to Mill the study’s findings can also be applied to other similarly structured countries.

Text: Yvonne Kaul / October 2022