Media Releases

Keep your enemies close? Study finds greater proximity to opponents leads to more polarization

February 2, 2015

TORONTO, ON — Encour­ag­ing adver­saries to have more inter­per­son­al con­tact to find com­mon ground may work on occa­sion, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the U.S. Sen­ate, accord­ing to new research.

In their study, “Pulling Clos­er and Mov­ing Apart: Inter­ac­tion, Iden­ti­ty, and Influ­ence in the U.S. Sen­ate, 1973 to 2009,” which appears in the Feb­ru­ary issue of the Amer­i­can Soci­o­log­i­cal Review, Christo­pher C. Liu, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, and Sameer B. Sri­vas­ta­va, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Berkeley’s Haas School of Busi­ness, stud­ied the inter­ac­tions among U.S. sen­a­tors from the 1970s to the 2000s.

A pat­tern emerged. Sen­a­tors either moved clos­er togeth­er or fur­ther apart in their vot­ing behav­ior as a func­tion of their polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties and how much con­tact they had with each oth­er. This pat­tern was espe­cial­ly pro­nounced when con­tact occurred in Sen­ate com­mit­tees that were more divid­ed.

“Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom says inter­per­son­al con­tact between peo­ple will fos­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion and con­sen­sus,” say Profs. Liu and Sri­vas­ta­va. “We found that increas­ing phys­i­cal con­tact between peo­ple who have oppos­ing and pub­lic polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties can instead pro­mote diver­gence of atti­tudes or behav­ior. This ten­den­cy is fur­ther ampli­fied in envi­ron­ments involv­ing high con­flict, which makes polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties more salient.”

Profs. Liu and Sri­vas­ta­va used two mea­sures of polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty: sen­a­tors’ par­ty affil­i­a­tion and the reli­gious cli­mate in the sen­a­tors’ home states. They also mea­sured sen­a­tors’ inter­ac­tions in two ways: seat­ing arrange­ments in the Sen­ate cham­ber and com­mit­tee assign­ments. Sen­a­tors from the same par­ty who had more con­tact — as indi­cat­ed by the prox­im­i­ty of their seats on the Sen­ate cham­ber floor and by co-mem­ber­ships on Sen­ate com­mit­tees — sub­se­quent­ly moved clos­er togeth­er in their vot­ing behav­ior, while sen­a­tors from dif­fer­ent par­ties who had more con­tact in lat­er ses­sions of Con­gress moved fur­ther apart in their vot­ing behav­ior.

“Co-loca­tion can induce both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive out­comes. Some­times keep­ing some dis­tance is the bet­ter option,” says Prof. Liu.

The authors say the U.S. Sen­ate is an “apt set­ting for the study of inter­ac­tion, iden­ti­ty, and influ­ence” because sen­a­tors have high­ly vis­i­ble polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties and are con­tin­u­al­ly seek­ing to influ­ence each oth­er through inter­ac­tion. Profs. Sri­vas­ta­va and Liu con­tend that their find­ings also have impli­ca­tions in cor­po­rate orga­ni­za­tions with oppo­si­tion­al polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties that are seek­ing to bridge dif­fer­ences between polar­ized groups.

For exam­ple, Profs. Liu and Sri­vas­ta­va explain, “Post-merg­er inte­gra­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly fol­low­ing a con­test­ed takeover, can pro­duce oppo­si­tion­al iden­ti­ties in a very pub­lic set­ting. In such cas­es, it may help to move inter­ac­tions into more pri­vate set­tings and find com­mon ground on less divi­sive issues before tack­ling the more con­tro­ver­sial ones.”

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment is locat­ed in the heart of Canada’s com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal and is part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, one of the world’s top 20 research uni­ver­si­ties. The Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables our grad­u­ates to tack­le today’s glob­al busi­ness chal­lenges.  For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


For more infor­ma­tion:

Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Voice 416.946.3818
Fol­low Rot­man on Twit­ter @rotmanschool
Watch Rot­man on You Tube