Adverse Events Can Drive Us to the Extreme

Are you getting divorced?  Going through a serious illness?  Failing a class?

All of these, believe it or not, can push you toward political polarization.

A new study says that adverse events can push us to the extreme.  According to, unexpected life events ranging from illness to relationship stress can lead to political polarization, pushing moderates toward the spectrum’s extremes, says a recently published study that’s breaking new ground on personally-experienced adversity and its effect on political attitudes.

Though a handful of studies have explored the effect of community-wide tragedies on personal beliefs, this current research looks exclusively at self-reported personal experience, a phenomenon that can produce different responses than what happens in the wake of collective events, such as reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We’re talking about people’s experience with adversity broadly construed,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study led by Daniel Randles, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. “It’s the cumulative effect of adversity. These feelings of uncertainly can have us adopting more extreme attitudes as a way of coping with that uncertainty,” adds Poulin.

“What we found isn’t like a light switch,” adds Daniel Randles, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.. “Most people experience occasional adversity and it doesn’t drive them to extreme positions. But repeated events seem to add up, nudging someone closer to their preferred view.”

Researchers asked a representative sample of 1,600 Americans to complete surveys toward the end of 2006, 2007 and 2008. The researchers asked participants about their political attitudes and personal adversity experiences to learn if those attitudes changed following these stressors.

There were about 37 negative events in the questionnaire, such as injury, bereavement or assault. The idea was to acquire a big picture of adversity and consider the different situations that could have upset people.

“Our results suggest increased polarization towards both the left and the right, with a slightly greater tilt toward conservative attitudes,” says Poulin. “Our surveys were done toward the end of the second George W. Bush administration, so supporting the War on Terror was considered a conservative policy, but I’m not sure in a vacuum that’s the right label. “The polarization piece was much stronger,” he says.


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