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Economics and Government professors attack partisan animosity in Strengthening Democracy Challenge

September 2, 2022

In early August, Associate Professor of Economics Daniel Stone, Professor of Government Michael Franz and Senior Interactive Developer David Francis won the Strengthening Democracy Challenge. The challenge, presented by political sociologists at Stanford University, invited academics and other professionals to submit intervention models for bolstering democratic practices in political discourse.

“In a lot of my classes, we talk about the sources of polarization, and I end up feeling as if, many times, discussions are somewhat depressing, because so many things seem so awful,” Franz said. “A lot of the research suggests that people have come to see even intermingling, intermarrying and being friends with members of the other party as being something to avoid. The question obviously becomes: what can be done about that? What can we do to fix it and reduce levels of polarization?”

Both Franz and Stone were motivated to enter the challenge, not only by their desire to reduce partisan animosity, but also by Stanford’s promise to the challenge’s 25 winners.

“If you get selected [as a winner], Stanford incurs all of the costs of running the model, and they’ll test your intervention on a representative sample of 1,000 people,” Stone said. “That kind of sample is hard to put together and is much more expensive and difficult than any old sample that we could put together.”

Excited by the possibility of this reward and the chance to produce statistically significant data on a large scale, Stone and Franz began polishing their intervention model along with their colleague Julie Minson, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard. They grew their experimental design out of Media Trades, a Bowdoin-built website that encourages anti-polarization by allowing college students on both ends of the political spectrum to share news media with one another.

Their solution was to show left- and right-wing participants a Heineken commercial that portrayed everyday Americans discussing their differing opinions on political issues, and then offer participants the opportunity to share one piece of media, or this same commercial, with a member of the opposing side of the political spectrum.

“The ad did a lot of work for us in terms of outgroup interactions. It shows us what those could be like, where you see groups of people with diametrically opposed views on the hot-button cultural issues of the day working together in a low-stakes environment and learning a little bit of each other’s humanity,” Franz said. “I think we couldn’t have filmed, written or designed something that was as powerful as that ad.”

Not only was this intervention model selected as a winner in a pool of over 250 submissions—as well as being the only submission with faculty from a liberal arts college selected—it also had the highest success rate of reducing partisan animosity among those tested by Stanford.

“It was like surpassing our wildest dreams,” Stone said. “There were a few studies at the top that were also quite similarly statistically significant, but it was really successful.”

In the wake of their success, the team at Bowdoin looks forward to the road ahead and to conducting future research on the origins, directions and solutions for partisan animosity.

“I hope [our intervention] leads to more use of the Media Trades platform and that we can continue to make use of it to reduce polarization,” Francis said. “I think this success in the Strengthening Democracy Challenge shows it has a lot of potential.”

“Media Trades offers a simple, fair opportunity to trade one piece of media content with someone who identifies as being on the other side of the political spectrum,” Stone said. “But the Strengthening Democracy Challenge did not allow participants to visit an external website, and we knew that the Media Trades would take too much time.”

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