The Psychology of Repression and Polarization

World Politics, Forthcoming

58 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2017 Last revised: 15 Dec 2019

Date Written: December 13, 2019


How does political polarization occur under repressive conditions? Drawing on psychological theories of social identity, I posit that the nature of repression -- whether it targets a specific group, or is more widespread -- drives polarization, a term capturing differences in both emotional affect as well as preferences among political groups. Repression alters group members' group identification, in turn changing the perceived distance between groups, and ultimately shaping the level of affective and preference polarization among these groups through processes of group differentiation. I test the proposal causal relationship using mixed method data and analysis. First, I conducted lab experiments with 434 adult citizens in Tunis, Tunisia in May 2016. Analyses reveal that exposure to a targeted repression prime result in increased in-group identification and affective and preference polarization between groups, while exposure to a widespread prime result in decreased levels of these same measurements. Subsequent analyses reveal the effect of the primes appears to be mediated through group identification. I then present case study evidence from Egypt and Tunisia to demonstrate how the nature of regime repression conditioned levels of polarization among political opposition groups over time. I conclude with the implications of my findings for understanding how polarization, as conditioned by repressive contexts, may alter the likelihood of the cooperative behavior among opposition actors necessary for the success of democratic politics.

Keywords: Repression, Polarization, Egypt, Tunisia, Political Psychology, Arab Spring

Suggested Citation

Nugent, Elizabeth, The Psychology of Repression and Polarization (December 13, 2019). World Politics, Forthcoming , Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth Nugent (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States


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