University of Limerick researcher receives grant “to understand social polarisation”

The two-million-euro project will be undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of experts in psychology and maths over the next five years.

The European Research Council has given Professor Mike Quayle of UL’s Psychology Department two-million-euros to investigate social polarisation.

The Consolidator Grant will go towards the project spearheaded by Quayle and Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software based in UL.

The project will be undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of experts in psychology and maths over the next five years and aims at making a “fundamental breakthrough in social identity, social information, and social polarisation.”

This is one of just two ERC grants awarded in the social sciences and humanities domain in 2023.

Professor Quayle stated that it was important to understand social polarisation in order to “tackle pressing issues like climate change” and in navigating future pandemics. 

“This is especially important,” he said, “since technological advances like social media and AI seem to be accelerating and amplifying polarisation in ways we do not understand.”

The ERC-funded project believes that social information compression “might be the ticking heart of polarisation” in so far as; we place trust in people similar to us and are more likely to be persuaded by those who hold beliefs that aren’t too dissimilar from ours, which creates tribes of like-minded individuals who create collective social information that helps define our social identities.

Professor Quayle asks: “How do we build cohesive societies and simultaneously reach consensus on how to deal with contentious issues? If successful, this project will deliver a model of polarisation that will help us tackle this question.”

Dublin Riots act as a case study for social polarisation

Professor Quayle’s questions happened to be proven both timely and relevant last week after a stabbing spree that targeted children ignited fury from some members of the public.

Deep public outrage took centre stage in the most dramatic fashion when the streets of Dublin glowed as vehicles were set aflame by alleged far-right protesters and criminal opportunists, or both.

A journalist wrote in The Irish Times: “People in disadvantaged communities have been told that the State has nothing but contempt for them. How we choose to label those involved with dictate how much of a victory the Republic’s new radical right can extract from this.”

The author provided an answer for the question on many people’s minds: “Why destroy your own city? Because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to you, you don’t feel welcome in it.”

Artist Niall O’Loughlin took to social media with an animated caricature of both Caio Benicio, the person who stopped the stabbing spree, and ‘Anto’ who represented the rioters and protesters last Thursday.

Each character was given a description beside their name. Cari Benicio was rightfully lauded as a hero, and ‘Anto’ acted as a contrast to him: “This is Anto, he’s from Dublin, has never worked, and sponges off the State. Yesterday him and his mates destroyed their own city, looted, attacked Gardaí, burnt cars, buses, etc. Anto claims he’s anti-immigration, but he’s just a scumbag.”

The post, which was reflective of much of the commentary on X at the time, was described as one commenter as “disgusting and classist” to which he responded: “Why thank you!”

When asked if he would be doing a drawing that depicted the middle classes taking part in the riot, he responded: “No, because I don’t do fantasy art!”

Previous work and the next steps for Quayle’s team

Previous work by Professor Quayle developed the “network theory of attitudes” that we all find ourselves in. “This took the basic idea that, when two people share very similar attitudes, they are joined by a thread of affinity.

“We used network models to show how social groups have many threads of agreement internally, but there are much fewer threads running between groups.”

The new research will expand on this in ways that could be profoundly helpful in navigating crises, Professor Quayle explains: “If our experimental and analytic work supports our theory, then we will have a much clearer understanding of how polarisation occurs what functions it achieves. We will have some good ideas of how social media might amplify and accelerate polarisations, and some ideas for how we might build more cohesion into social systems.”

Professor Quayle says that while there is a “realistic possibility” their hypotheses may not be supported by evidence, it is still “an important part of the scientific process” to discover that their existing assumptions may be wrong.

He stated that research will go ahead with a degree of caution, because some polarisation may serve a function to society in fostering democracies that have clear values and identities. “We hope that this model will help us understand the difference between functional and pernicious polarisation,” he added.

UL Vice President Research Professor Norelee Kennedy gave her congratulations to Professor Quayle and his team: “This is a really significant award from the top tier of European research funding, and I congratulate Professor Quayle and his team for their success, which builds on an earlier ERC Starting grant.

“This kind of innovative activity has been nurtured by the research ecosystem in UL where our researchers are tackling global challenges to have a positive impact on our society and our everyday lives,” she added.

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