Published May 11, 2023 by Tom Porter

Undue Hate: Why Do We Loathe Each Other So Much?

The political divide in the US, particularly between Democrats and Republicans, has widened to an alarming level in recent years. Associate Professor of Economics Daniel Stone asks why this is the case and what can be done.

undue hate book cover

In his recently published work, Undue Hate: A Behavioral Economic Analysis of Hostile Polarization in US Politics and Beyond (MIT Press, May 2023), Stone explores the growth in what he calls “affective polarization,” a term used to describe the emotional hostility that underpins much of today’s political rhetoric.

Employing his skills as a behavioral economist, Stone explains why we often develop objectively false, and overly negative, beliefs about the other side—causing us to dislike them more than we should. He employs simple mathematical concepts and models to illustrate how we are able to misjudge those we disagree with, in both a political and nonpolitical context.

In a recent interview published on the news site Salon, Stone said “one of the key claims the book makes is that it is possible for our negative feelings to be excessive because our negative feelings, or feelings in general toward other people, are based on beliefs about those people's character traits which have implications for their actions and their opinions. So, our beliefs about their character traits are what drive our feelings and our beliefs can be right or wrong...”

stone portrait
This semester Stone is teaching The Behavioral Economics of Affective Polarization (ECON 3559)

Another key factor in polarization is a mistaken belief in the extent of the other side’s hostility toward us, something known as “second-order beliefs” or sometimes as “false meta-perceptions,” said Stone. This kind of misperception, he continued, can also lead us to false conclusions about the kind of behavior we think the other side is capable of. For example:

“You could overestimate how supportive they are of political violence.”

One way of trying to counter this polarization, said Stone, is to get opposing sides together in a room for some “robust real word contact.” But, he explained, direct contact is not always going to improve relations: “the conditions have to be not too competitive, and they have to be reasonably constructive.” Read the interview.

As part of his work to fight polarization, Stone teamed up in 2020 with colleagues at Bowdoin on an initiative called Media Trades, an online program that encourages left-leaning and right-leaning participants to share news and opinion articles with one another. Last year the Media Trades team, which includes political scientist Michael Franz and interactive developer David Francis, were finalists in Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge, a national contest to look for ways of reducing partisan animosity among Americans.