Art of Public Engagement: The Persistence of Polarization

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

The persistence of polarization is tied to identity. Holding different beliefs than your family, friends, and community is costly. So the “rational” response is to selectively edit the information you have to make your beliefs conform. Individual rationality undercuts the larger community’s ability to address serious problems.

First, I want to thank our Laramie colleagues for staging a fabulous conference. Beyond an informative program, it was great to visit with old friends and to see the renaissance of downtown Laramie.

Being at the conference made me think about what has persisted over the years we have been gathering: planners’ struggles with the polarized land use politics of the West. I recently came across interesting research on the topic of polarization and will use this column to introduce Western planners to the work of Dan Kahan, who is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. He is also a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, which uses empirical methods to examine the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and related facts. In studies funded by the National Science Foundation, Kahan’s research has investigated public disagreement over climate change, public reactions to emerging technologies, and conflicting public impressions of scientific consensus.

Kahan’s research on climate change has what at first glance are counterintuitive results. He and his associates find that polarization is NOT a result of people having too little information. Instead, it appears that: a) the public knows the basic facts about climate change, but b) the more information people have and c) the better equipped they are to process that information, the more polarized they become. How is that possible?

Kahan’s explanation is that it’s all about identity. Holding different beliefs than your family, friends, and community is costly. You could lose business. You could lose an election. You could spend a lot of time alone. So, your “rational” response will be to edit selectively the information you have to make your beliefs conform. Kahan then points out the reality that, in the case of deeply polarizing issues, individual rationality undercuts the larger community’s ability to address serious problems. We can’t be rational at both scales.

I think planners know this to be true. How many Western jurisdictions have conducted fiscal impact studies that show that exurban development fails to generate revenues sufficient to cover the cost of the services it demands? And yet, how many have stopped approving rural subdivisions? It’s more “rational” for a county commissioner to have happy interactions at the coffee shop or bar than it is to tell what may be a large part of her constituency that their choice of where to live is creating a real problem.

If you have time to read one of Kahan’s papers, I recommend “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem,” which appeared in Advances in Political Psychology last year.1 The practical insight planners can gain from this paper comes in Kahan’s description of efforts to address climate change in Florida, where the 2009 Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact2 leads the nation in taking action on this issue. But how? Nationally prominent Florida politicians tend to be nationally prominent climate change deniers, and one assumes that many of their constituents are, too.

What Kahan suggests with the Florida example is that perhaps we can address potentially polarizing issues on a practical, local level. The mayors and county commissioners who signed the compact know that they have to maintain and protect public infrastructure as the world changes around them. Highly politicized arguments about why the world is changing don’t contribute to that task. And so, they talk about “sea level change,” which clearly affects everyone who lives in Florida regardless of why it is happening.

I think that’s my ration of words for this issue. I will return to this topic next time! If you have comments, let me hear them at

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974.


  1. Fortunately, this paper (and others) is easily accessible at, the website of the Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project.

Published in the October/December Issue of 2015

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