Just a Big Misunderstanding? Bias and Bayesian Affective Polarization

International Economic Review, forthcoming

46 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2016 Last revised: 9 Jul 2019

See all articles by Daniel F. Stone

Daniel F. Stone

Bowdoin College - Department of Economics

Date Written: July 1, 2019


I present a model of affective polarization ("that both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents," Iyengar et al, 2012) via Bayesian inference. Two agents, representing the parties, repeatedly make policy choices. Each choice is based on a balance of concerns for private interests and the social good. More weight is put on private interests when an agent's character is intrinsically more self-serving and when the other agent is believed to be more self-serving. Each agent Bayesian updates about the other's character, and dislikes the other more when she is perceived as more self-serving. I characterize the effects on growth in dislike of three biases: a prior bias against the other agent's character, the false consensus bias, and limited strategic thinking. Prior bias against the other remains constant or dissipates over time, and actions do not diverge. The other two biases cause actions to become more extreme over time and repeatedly be "worse" than expected, causing mutual growth in dislike, i.e., affective polarization. The magnitude of dislike can become arbitrarily large---even when both players are arbitrarily "good" (unselfish). The results imply that "unmotivated" bias can be an important cause of the devolution of relationships, in politics and beyond, and that subtlety and unawareness of bias are key factors driving the degree of polarization.

Keywords: affective polarization, partyism, polarization, disagreement, dislike, over-precision, unawareness, motivated reasoning, media bias

JEL Classification: D64, D72, D83

Suggested Citation

Stone, Daniel F., Just a Big Misunderstanding? Bias and Bayesian Affective Polarization (July 1, 2019). International Economic Review, forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2760069 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2760069

Daniel F. Stone (Contact Author)

Bowdoin College - Department of Economics ( email )

Brunswick, ME 04011
United States
6463387833 (Phone)

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