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Ahead of German elections in 2017, the ZEIT ONLINE newsroom came up with the idea behind Germany Talks. The idea was to bring together people with opposing political views – determined by their answers to a handful of controversial yes-or-no questions – for one-on-one discussions. Around 12,000 people took part in the first iteration of the project, which won the prestigious Grimme Online Award. In summer 2018, ZEIT ONLINE joined forces with 11 German media partners for a repeat of the event, which attracted 28,000 participants. That installment of Germany Talks was the subject of a scientific study performed by behavioral economist Armin Falk. The study will be published soon, but initial results are already available.
DIE ZEIT: Mr. Falk, is it even necessary to speak with those who think differently, as took place in the Germany Talks event?
Armin Falk: Yes. That can be seen simply from the number of people who signed up. And researchers have reported that the willingness to consider the arguments of others has dropped considerably in the last five to 10 years.
ZEIT: What are the most important elements of such a discussion?
Falk: Listening is more important than talking. People should bring along a desire to try and understand the perspectives, the limitations and the ideas of the other person. That doesn't mean that you have to share their positions, but that you accept that they have something to say. If not enough people do that, it can polarize a society.
ZEIT: What do you mean when you say polarization?
Falk: It helps to differentiate between contextual and emotional polarization. Contextual polarization can be seen on issues such as abortion, climate change or the approach to refugees. In a polarized society, there are fewer people who are, for example, neutral on the issue of abortion and many who are either clearly in favor or clearly against.
ZEIT: What is emotional polarization?
Falk: That we tend to have less regard for people with different political convictions than we used to. We see them as being more self-serving, dumber, more malicious and less informed. The hatred for Angela Merkel is a perfect example. There are people who don't just reject her policies, but everything about her as a person.
ZEIT: Is polarization really all that new?
Falk: No. That can be seen from the 1920s and '30s in Germany. But it has likely increased since the 1980s.
Falk: One major reason is that inequality has become greater in the past decades – between the East and West, but also between the older generation and the younger, between the educated and uneducated and between the rich and the poor. That has resulted in our lifestyles, which determine how we see the world, diverging from each other. An example: Twenty years ago, a nurse or a supermarket cashier could still afford rent on an apartment in the center of larger cities. Today, rents are so high that they have been forced to move to the outskirts and the higher earners are left among themselves.
ZEIT: Which is a powerful source of frustration.
Falk: Yes. The fact that people grumble about rich Westerners, whiny Easterners or the political elite is a reflex born out of frustration. But there is an additional, far simpler reason for polarization: We prefer to surround ourselves with people who share our views and who reinforce those views. With technological advancements such as social media, doing so has become much easier in recent years.
ZEIT: You are referring to so-called filter bubbles – the phenomenon which sees many people only getting their news from social media channels, surrounding themselves primarily with like-minded people and thus hardly ever coming into contact with opinions that don't reflect their worldview. Many experts believe that the dangers have been overblown.
Falk: That is correct. Studies seem to indicate that digital filter bubbles are not the primary cause of polarization. More than anything, the internet has likely made polarization more visible because every opinion, no matter how extreme, is given a stage. And it could be that filter bubbles intensify polarization.