As is apparent in our current political climate, polarization pulls people apart, keeping them from seeing eye to eye in anything, not just the points where they disagree. The provision of factual information seems like an obvious tool to combat political polarization, though this is actually not the case. People are less likely to change their minds when presented with factual information that disagrees with their worldview, and are more likely to view the information as suspect [1, 2]. The reason for this rejection of the facts can stem from Identiy-Protection Cognition, a theory by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, which states that, “as a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values” . In conjunction with the effects of social identity on establishing viewpoints on controversial ideas, self-conscious emotions also play a role . A study by Elizabeth Suhay found that people adhere to political norms in order to maintain group status, and that deviance from the values of a particular in-group leads to shame and disapproval, resulting in conformity. Thus, polarization appears to stem from interactions between a person and the groups that they belong to, not from intrinsic stubbornness.
In order to create an experience to help people respect each other and see eye to eye, I propose an immersive outdoor hiking trip in a small, ideologically diverse group of total strangers. If the interplay between people and the groups they are a part of leads to polarization, temporarily isolating people from these groups, as well as ever-present smartphones, may make people more willing to listen to opposing ideas, since they have no danger of losing status in their groups from home. It is far easier to insult someone from behind the safety of one’s computer than it is to abuse someone who is helping you carry water, or light the stove, or any one of the innumerable group tasks that allows people to survive in the woods. This proposal harnesses the power of being in the outdoors and teamwork to push people to respect one another’s points of view, even if they don’t agree with the specifics of a particular idea.
Benefits of this strategy
– The outdoor experience lends itself well to teamwork and group problem solving, both of which lead to respect for other people’s ideas
– Diversity of thought within the group prevents a polarizing group ideology from forming, which would negate the point of the experience
– People do not have access to their regular groups, which means they are not policed by feelings of shame for engaging with ideas outside their political ideology
– Hiking and being outdoors is known to release endorphins, making people happier, perhaps making them more willing to engage with other people’s ideas
– Participants have no access to internet or phones, and so cannot back up any controversial claims with their own experts and engage in a “fact war”
The experience, called “Into the Wild”, is an outdoor hiking or backpacking experience that lasts for between 3-5 days, and is meant for people in their 20s and 30s (though anyone can participate) that have limited experience to the outdoors. The goal is to draw a subset of people who may not otherwise have access to the outdoors, since the outdoor community in the United States tends to skew white and male. Other experiences like this exist, like Outward Bound or NOLS [4, 5], but these experiences cost multiple thousands of dollars, and are in international locations. Into the Wild will be free for those who cannot afford it, and participants will be able to rent all gear necessary for the trip. Participants will be recruited by way of advertising on message boards in community centers, libraries and local businesses, as well as by advertising in community colleges, which tend to have a more diverse student body than four year institutions. Ads will also run in local newspapers and will be posted in religious institutions of many different kinds. There will be a specific emphasis on advertising in both rural and urban areas, as well as advertising in ideologically distinct counties. The experience will be advertised as a way to meet new people in an adventurous context.
Participants will be divided into groups with an emphasis on maintaining diversity within the group, both of experience and ideology. Two leaders who have participated in Into the Wild trips before will lead the group on an excursion, either a backpacking trip or a campsite based hiking trip. At the start of the trip, a group norm of respect for others will be established, and leaders will emphasize that norm if ideological disagreements arise. Leaders will serve as moderators for the group, and will make a point to spark conversation topics that push people to talk about their own experiences and lives, in order for participants to provide context for their ideas and beliefs. This part of the experience will cater to dual desires, since people will get to know each other holistically, not using one dimensional labels like “Democrat” or “Republican”, which will help them see the humanity in others and prevent them from automatically dismissing others. At the end of each day, participants will go through reflection activities, where they share moments in their lives or particular challenges that they have faced. Teamwork is a critical part of the experience, and all participants will work together to perform various tasks, including setting up camp, purifying water, and cooking food. By the end of the trip, participants will have respect for and a far better understanding of the lives of people who are ideologically different from themselves, which will make it harder to dismiss those with different views. Participants will also have a community of people who do not subscribe to one ideology, meaning that they will have a space where they will not be shamed for having a particular viewpoint.