The Effects of Political Stress in a Polarized Society

September 5, 2019
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political stress

The benefit of living in a democracy is that everyone gets to have an opinion about public policy.  Discussion and disagreement is normal and to be expected, as not everyone will have the same opinion about all social and political issues.  However, polarization occurs when a society is divided and cannot coexist with others who do not share their political views.  Group polarization causes different groups to have rote, involuntary responses due to strong identification with their groups. 

Group identity causes close-mindedness and rejection of other ideas that do not come from the group.  Groups increasingly dislike each other, which serves to increase the negativity and judgment of others. Group polarization results in the formation of separate groups, fueled by competition, where compromise is often viewed as a betrayal.  Polarization is having a major impact on our society in that it is segregating people within communities and causing increase amounts of tension and stress.

Political stress in a polarized society can have a multitude of effects on individuals and on society as a whole.  Political campaigns have become increasingly ugly, where prospective candidates tend to focus more on attacking their opponents rather than on promoting their platforms.  People instantaneously judge and dislike members from other political parties without respecting individual differences in opinion.  People often feel intense pressure to conform to the exact same attitudes and viewpoints from members of their own party so as to avoid conflict and dissent and to preserve group identity.  Additionally, attitudes and viewpoints may be more based on emotions than on facts.

People are losing faith in democracy, in government, and in chief institutions as a whole.  Groups are so polarized that problem solving becomes impossible even when groups do agree with each other.  Political stress tends to promote violence, as individuals are no longer viewed as people and instead, are viewed as representative members of a larger group.  Because of this climate, people are feeling less and less safe to verbalize their true opinions. 

Political stress has also caused a magnification of psychological principles such as the halo effect and confirmation bias.  The halo effect refers to the tendency to view everything as either all favorable or all negative once we create an initial positive or negative impression about something.  Confirmation bias is the inclination to be more vigilant to facts that confirm an already existing viewpoint, while unknowingly disregarding facts that could potentially challenge these views.

So what does all of this mean?  In a nutshell, political stress and affiliations are causing an intense divide in humanity and in a society as a whole.  Individuals no longer have an open mind.  People are afraid to bring up anything that could turn political for fear of what may happen.  People may cut off contact with others who do not share their own personal views.  Others remain so close minded that there is no chance for healthy discussion, a challenge of thoughts, or the chance for a constructive resolution. 

The only way to address the divide is for people to get informed and gain understanding about facts without bias.  Individuals need to try to understand why someone may hold a different opinion and consider how they might have developed it.  The only way to combat political stress in a polarized society is to aid individuals in the development of empathy and respect, help people re-learn how to listen and truly hear one another, and encourage people to keep an open mind and all lines of communication open.  People need to remember that they live in a democracy, which encourages and promotes differences in opinion.     

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.