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When the fall semester begins, Garriy Shteynberg, associate professor of psychology, will lead a three-year study to examine how Americans’ social and political attitudes have grown more extreme over the past 20 years.

The project was awarded a $351,339 grant from the National Science Foundation in May and is expected to conclude in 2021.

The research is a collaboration among scientists who hold divergent views about how attitudes grow more extreme. In all, the research team will work together on 12 experiments—discussing every aspect of the study design, execution, and analysis with the goal of reaching a joint understanding of the results.

This adversarial collaboration may provide a better understanding of the extremization of social and political attitudes in recent history and yield insight into how people can find common ground in today’s increasingly polarized world.

“Understanding how co-attending with others polarizes attitudes is important as people are not generally aware that simply witnessing something with others changes their beliefs,” Shteynberg said, “If we know more about how this occurs, we can predict with greater certainty the circumstances under which attitudes will grow more extreme. Such understanding has implications for predicting—and perhaps avoiding—social conflict.”

Prior research shows that when people experience something together, they develop more extreme emotions and attitudes about that experience—but it’s not known why this occurs.

“Some researchers believe that when we co-attend with others we simply pay more attention, and hence our attitudes get more extreme,” Shteynberg said. “Others believe that when we co-attend with others we are more likely to read their minds, and that’s how the attitudes become extreme. This set of studies, which will involve scientists from both sides, is designed to figure out who is right. Of course, both theories may be true or false.”

Studies often claim to settle an issue, yet scientific disagreement remains because of differences in the interpretation of results. Shteynberg points to the famous marshmallow test—which studied the self control of children tempted with eating marshmallows—which has been interpreted numerous ways and has been built upon by other studies.

Shteynberg has been studying and publishing on the topics of social norms and emotional contagion for the past decade.

“I am fascinated by how shared experiences with our social groups influence what we remember, the goals we pursue, and the things we value,” he said.

CONTACT:

Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674, kdunlap6@utk.edu)