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Let’s talk about global polarisation: For Alumni, By Alumni

15 February 2022

Alexandra Chesterfield (BA 2003 and PGDip 2004) applies behavioural science to her work, to improve outcomes for individuals, organisations and societies. She works as the Head of Behavioural Risk at a successful bank and teaches as a guest lecturer at Jesus College Cambridge. Alexandra’s new podcast, Changed My Mind, and her book, Poles Apart, both examine and address the increasing polarisation occurring across the globe. Here she explains why this is such an important topic, and why now more than ever, is the time to talk about it.

I formed some of the strongest friendships at my time in Cardiff University, with people from across the globe, but it also made me realise that the groups we identify with – whether football, nationality, political etc – fundamentally shape how we behave, who we like and who we don’t like. One of my earliest memories of ‘us and them’ was my first week in student halls in Column Road when, after a few drinks, one of my new Welsh housemates used a derogatory term to highlight my English identity.  Growing up in my own group bubble and in a predominately English environment, I had never realised that my group ‘label’ (being English) could lead someone to feel hostile towards me.

After graduating in BA Hons English Literature and a PG Dip in Public and Media Relations, I got onto a London-based graduate scheme in a big global communications arm. One of my placements involved working at a research consultancy with the then pollster for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The work ignited a passion for understanding why we do what we do, how we come to think what we think, and how those insights can be used for positive change.

Why are humans so groupish? At one level, categorising people into groups is a very natural cognitive process – from moss, to films, to books to each other! At another level, humans, like other species, have an innate need to belong to a group.  As well as physical benefits like food, warmth and protection, belonging to a group confers a feeling of safety and helps us make sense of the world around us. It also brings significant emotional benefits in the forms of pride and self-esteem. It reduces uncertainty. But we also know that as soon as we categorise people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ it triggers a host of favourable feelings towards our ingroup and negative feelings towards our outgroup.  

Roll on a few years and I’d joined Which?, Europe’s largest Consumers’ Association, where I set up and led its first Behavioural Science team and did a MSc at University College London in Cognitive & Decision Science.

In parallel, I was elected onto my local Council. After getting sworn at, spat at and shouted at whilst canvassing, I became really curious about why the groups we identify with can cause so much animosity and hostility. Teaming up with two Which? colleagues, we launched a podcast called Changed my Mind, hosted by Open Democracy, asking leaders from business, academia and politics about a time they’d changed their minds to promote open-mindedness, reflection and greater tolerance. 

The success of the podcast snowballed into a global book deal with Penguin Random House on why groups can turn against each other and how to bring people back together. Despite us changing jobs, one of us having a baby and of course the global pandemic, Poles Apart was published in September 2021 with brilliant endorsements (still pinching myself).

From the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC and stark splits in the UK on Brexit to debates over climate change dividing many countries, the recourse to ‘us and them’ is visible across the globe. These divides are aggravated by tough socio-economic circumstances, rapid technological changes, and a rising sense of uncertainty, not helped by the global pandemic. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. But on a more positive note, while there is no simple silver bullet for polarisation, its impacts cannot be brushed aside; we must take steps as individuals, groups, businesses and society to tackle it. We are all part of the problem, but at least that means we can all be part of the solution. 

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