Current research projects

Political Identity Norms, Trendsetters and their Influence on Political Polarization

Short Description: Many individuals identify with a party (e.g., the Liberal party in Canada) and/or with an ideological label (e.g., as a conservative in the US). Trust of those with different partisan identities or ideological identities is in decline, while intolerance and stereotyping are on the rise. Individuals increasingly view those with different political (partisan and ideological) identities as an intolerable threat, and question the legitimacy of elections when their group does not win. Ironically, this polarization may have less to do with substantive policy disagreement and more to do with beliefs about how members of a political identity group ought to behave. Surveys show little change in the distribution of policy preferences across identity groups, and yet animosity between them has increased, with a breakdown in the tolerance and trust required for a healthy democracy. Still, despite these important revelations about the nature of polarization, the dynamics of polarization remain less clear.

To understand political polarization, research is needed in two areas. The first is to examine the role of the expectations accompanying identities (i.e. norms). Our past work (and that of others) shows that those with a particular political identity believe they are expected by others with the same identity to support certain policies and democratic values. We propose to build on this research by examining how such normative expectations have evolved to maximize perceived distinctiveness between groups. We posit that ideological and partisan identifiers believe that fellow group members expect them to hold opinions maximally different from other groups and to eschew democratic values designed to mitigate differences between groups. Therefore, polarization stems not from our own beliefs, but from our beliefs about what others who share our identity expect of us. The second area in need of study is the role of trendsetters– individuals that by virtue of their position in society and/or popularity in a group act as exemplars for that group. Our past work (and that of others) demonstrates that the discourse of trendsetters can create, foster and change identity-based normative expectations by convincing other group members that trendsetter views constitute a group norm. We propose to build on this research by examining how trendsetters’ influence on norms contributes to political polarization.

By studying the importance of both norms and trendsetters, we seek to understand how polarizing and anti-democratic normative expectations arise, and how they can be challenged. Building on our past findings, we propose to examine expectations regarding what policies/issues a group member should support (policy norms) as well as expectations of political tolerance, trust and inclusiveness (democracy norms). This work will allow us to develop and test interventions that can be used to strengthen democratic norms and counteract political polarization.

Team members: Erik Kimbrough (Chapman University); Eric Groenendyk (University of Memphis); Eline de Rooij (Simon Fraser University); Allison Harell (Université du Québec à Montréal); Laura Stephenson (Western University)

Public Health Messaging during COVID-19

Short Description: In the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that Dr. Bonnie Henry and the BC Centre for Disease Control were going to use injunctive norms more than fines and penalties to encourage behaviours designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in British Columbia. As students of the establishment and effects of such norms on behaviours, we were interested if we could apply what we have learned about norms to help design government messaging to achieve these goals. We reached out to the BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG), as the unit in the BC Public Service Agency that applies behavioural science knowledge and methods to address public policy problems. We discussed the research being conducted by BC BIG and gaps in that research. We quickly recognize that the theoretical understanding of norms and experience with empirically testing the effect of normative interventions that my academic research team could bring to the table could be effectively combined with BC BIG’s practical understanding of government messaging. Since then we have been working together to design messaging prototypes to be tested experimentally.

Team members: Vincent Hopkins (University of Saskatchewan); Erik Kimbrough (Chapman University); Edana Beauvais (Simon Fraser University)

Partner Organization: BC Behavioural Insights Group

Misinformation and Conspiracies

Short Description: Social media have long been considered a venue in which conspiracy theories and misinformation originate and spread. It has been no different during COVID-19. However, understanding who spreads conspiracy theories and misinformation by sharing them on social media, and why, has been underexplored, especially in a cross-national context. The global nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity to understand the exposure and sharing of the same COVID-19 related conspiracies and misinformation across multiple countries. We rely on large, nationally representative surveys conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to begin to understand who shares conspiracies and misinformation on social media and what motivates them.

Team members: Dominik Stecula (Colorado State University); Clifton van der Linden (McMaster University)