Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline

Alexander J Stewart*, Nolan McCarty*, Joanna J Bryson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Social and political polarization is an important source of conflict in many societies. Understanding its causes has become a priority of scholars across disciplines. We demonstrate that shifts in socialization strategies analogous to political polarization can arise as a locally beneficial response to both rising wealth inequality and economic decline. In many contexts, interaction with diverse out-groups confers benefits from innovation and exploration greater than those that arise from interacting exclusively with a homogeneous in-group. However, when the economic environment favors risk aversion, a strategy of seeking lower-risk in-group interactions can be important to maintaining individual solvency. Our model shows that under conditions of economic decline or increasing inequality, some members of the population benefit from adopting a risk-averse, in-group favoring strategy. Moreover, we show that such in-group polarization can spread rapidly to the whole population and persist even when the conditions that produced it have reversed.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbereabd4201
Number of pages9
JournalScience Advances
Issue number50
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2020


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