Cognitive–motivational mechanisms of political polarization in social-communicative contexts

John T. Jost, Delia S. Baldassarri, James N. Druckman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Healthy democratic polities feature competing visions of a good society but also require some level of cooperation and institutional trust. Democracy is at risk when citizens become so polarized that an ‘us versus them’ mentality dominates. Despite a vast multidisciplinary literature, no coherent conceptual framework of the microlevel dynamics that increase or decrease polarization has been presented. In this Review, we provide a conceptual framework to integrate scientific knowledge about cognitive–motivational mechanisms that influence political polarization and the social-communicative contexts in which they are enacted. Ego-justifying and group-justifying motives lead individuals to defend their own pre-existing beliefs and those of their in-group, respectively. However, a distinct class of system-justifying motives contributes to asymmetric forms of polarization. Whereas conservative-rightist ideology is associated with valuing tradition, social order and maintenance of the status quo, liberal-leftist ideology is associated with a push for egalitarian social change. These cognitive–motivational mechanisms interact with social influence processes linked to communication source, message and channel factors, all of which might contribute to increased or decreased polarization. We conclude with a discussion of unanswered questions and ways in which our framework can be extended to the study of culture and institutions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)560-576
Number of pages17
JournalNature Reviews Psychology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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