Threat, identity, and dissent: Understanding and addressing political polarization in European democracies (UNDPOLAR)

Project focus

In many countries, public opinion is polarized on immigration, inequality, populism, and trust in institutions. Although there is extended scientific literature for each issue, there is a pressing need for integration. Are opinions on these issues related, and, if so, what is the glue that binds them? Do different groups of people polarize on different issues and/or for different reasons?

First objective

The first objective is to determine how identities and threats generate multiple polarized attitudes. Next, researchers will identify subpopulations with unique belief systems of threats, identities, and polarized attitudes. This is followed by experiments that test a few specific causal effects of identities and threats and how these may differ between subpopulations with different belief systems.

Second objective

The second objective is to compare subpopulations of belief systems across countries and over time. Therefore, cross-country differences in belief systems will be related to variation in the political landscape (e.g., political polarisation) and differences in social structural country characteristics (e.g., inequality and meritocratic beliefs).

Third objective

The third objective, democratic innovations such as citizen fora, have been developed to overcome polarisation. Researchers will test whether using our insights on threats and identity can make such fora more effective.


Project Leader:
Dr. Toon Kuppens, University of Groningen (the Netherlands)

Dr. Toon Kuppens is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen. His main research interest is intergroup relations. More specifically, he is currently combining sociological and social psychological approaches to study social class, relations between social classes, and the stigmatization of the less educated.

Project Investigator:
Dr. Matthew Easterbrook, University of Sussex (UK)

Dr. Matthew Easterbrook completed his Ph.D. at Sussex in 2013 under the supervision of Viv Vignoles, during which he investigated how context – cultural, social, and physical – affects people’s identities, motivations, and interactions. He then worked with Helga Dittmar and Robin Banerjee at Sussex on the Children’s Consumer Culture Project, studying materialistic and appearance motivations, identity, and well-being among children and young people. Later in 2013, he moved to work at Cardiff University with Tony Manstead and Toon Kuppens (now at University of Groningen) on a project investigating the impact of education and inequality on people’s identities, well-being, and socio-political attitudes. Finally, in July 2014, he came back to Sussex as a lecturer in psychology. Some of his current projects include:

  • COVID-19,
  • Writing About Values

Project Investigator:
Professor Dr. Rosa Rodríguez-Bailón, Universidad de Granada (Spain)

Prof. Dr. Rosa Rodriguez-Bailón is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Granada (Spain). Her research has mainly focused on the psychosocial effects of social power and its legitimacy. More recently, she has become interested in how power, status hierarchy, and economic inequality shape relations between individuals and groups. Together with other colleagues, Rosa undertakes research into how economic and status inequality affects norms and social values, competitiveness, status anxiety, consumption behavior, and attitudes towards redistribution. She also investigates how justice ideologies such as meritocracy and economic system justification moderate the effects of economic inequality.

Project Investigator:
Professor Dr. Céline Darnon, University of Clermont-Ferrand (France)

Prof. Dr. Céline Darnon is a professor of social psychology at Clermont Auvergne University (France). She is currently a co-leader of LAPSCO research team 2 (“Behavior Social and Collective Dynamics”) and a co-chief director of the Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale/International Review of Social Psychology.

Project Investigator:
Dr. Marta Marchlewska, Polish Academy of Sciences (Poland)

Dr. Marta Marchlewska is a head of the Political Cognition Lab – Institute of Psychology, Polish Academy of Sciences, a lecturer at the Faculty of Psychology (University of Warsaw), an associate of the Political Psychology Lab based at the University of Kent (UK). She is a specialist in the field of psychometrics and quantitative data analysis. She has acquired broad experience by collaborating with various academics (Center for Research on Prejudice, University of Warsaw; Centre for Social Cognitive Studies, Jagiellonian University; Political Psychology Lab, University of Kent), as well as corporate institutions (Maison& Partners, ARC). In her projects, she concentrates mainly on the functions that different forms of psychological threat play in perceiving the world of politics. She draws particular attention to personality variables: self-esteem, narcissism, in-group identification methods, and links them to political preferences: support for democracy, populist policy, or belief in conspiracy theories relating to politics.

Project Investigator:
Professor Dr. Peter Achterberg, Tilburg University (the Netherlands)

Prof. Dr. Peter Achterberg is a professor of sociology at Tilburg University. Peter is a cultural sociologist with a general interest in studying cultural, political, and religious change in the West. Much of his work deals with how people attribute meaning to the changing world surrounding them, whether these meanings have consequences for their behavior, and how these (changing and differing) meanings can be explained.

Project Investigator:
Professor Dr. Didier Caluwaerts, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium)

Prof. Dr. Didier Caluwaerts is an Associate Professor of Democratic Governance at the VUB. His research interests include deliberative and participatory democracy, democratic myopia, and democratic regression. He recently set up a lab experiment with professor Michael MacKenzie (University of Pittsburgh) on deliberation and long-term thinking regarding environmental policy. He was previously a post-doctoral researcher of the FWO at the VUB. His Ph.D. (2011, VUB) dealt with deliberative democracy in divided societies. It was awarded the 2012 ECPR Jean Blondel Ph.D. award and the 2016 Ignace Vanderschueren Ph.D. Prize and it was nominated for the Annual Ph.D. Prize of the Dutch and Flemish Political Science Associations. He is also the winner of the 2010 ECPR Dirk Berg-Schlosser award and co-organizer of the G1000 citizens' summit (2011). In 2013 and 2014, Didier was a Democracy Fellow and a Frank Boas Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. His stay at Harvard was made possible with grants from the Fulbright Commission and the Belgian American Educational Foundation. In 2012, he was a visiting fellow at the research group on "Challenges to Democratic Representation" of the University of Amsterdam.

Professor Dr. Antony Manstead, Cardiff University (UK)

Prof. Dr. Antony Manstead is a social psychologist, and his research focuses on three topics: emotion, attitudes, and social identity. He is interested in the role emotion plays in interpersonal and intergroup relations. He is also interested in the role played by social identity in intergroup conflict and cooperation.

Professor Dr. Bram Spruyt, Vrije University Brussels (Belgium)

Prof. Dr. Bram Spruyt is an associate professor of Sociology. He teaches Sociology, Cultural sociology, Researching culture. His main research interests include public opinion research, youth research, sociology of education, and cultural sociology. Bram Spruyt is a member of the Young Academy of Belgium.

Efrain García Sanchez, University of Sao Paulo, (Brazil)

Efrain García Sanchez holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Valle (2007), a specialization degree in Police Service (Citizen Security and Social Coexistence) from the National Directorate of Schools of the National Police of Colombia (2010), an MA in Psychology from the University of Valle (2014), an MA in Psychology and Social Intervention from the University of Granada (2012), and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Granada (2019). He is currently a Post-Doctorate Researcher at USP’s Center for the Study of Violence.

Professor Dr. Felicity Turner-Zwinkels, Tilburg University (the Netherlands)

Prof. Dr. Felicity Turner-Zwinkels is a professor at Tilburg University. Her research explores how political belief systems can be conceptualized and measured as psychological networks. This research takes the new perspective that attitudes and beliefs might directly and dynamically influence each other rather than indicate an overarching, latent factor (e.g., liberal or conservatism). Through this research, she aims to deepen understanding of the structure of political beliefs and how and why they impact political behavior.

Professor Dr. Guillermo B. Willis, University of Granada (Spain)

Prof. Dr. Guillermo B. Willis is an associate professor at the University of Granada, Social Psychology Department. He received his PhD. from the same university in 2009. His main research interests are, broadly defined, the causes and consequences of social inequality.

Jochem van Noord, Vrije University Brussels (Belgium)

Jochem van Noord obtained his bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 2014 and, in 2016, a master’s degree in the research master Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Since 2016 he has been working in the TOR Research Group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel as a junior researcher and Ph.D. candidate. He investigates education-based status and its effects on political participation. His main research interests are cultural sociology, political sociology, and sociology of education.

Dr. Mark Brand, Michigan State University (USA)

Dr. Mark Brandt is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. He is an affiliated faculty member with Minority Politics, a joint group between Political Science and Psychology.

Dr. Marta Rogoza, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (Poland)

Dr. Marta Rogoza has been a doctor of social sciences in psychology (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw) since 2018. Currently, she is also a lecturer at the Institute of Psychology of the UKSW. In addition, she has gained her experience working in research teams carrying out scientific projects (financed by the National Science Center and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education) at the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Personality and Development PERSONALITAS (Institute of Psychology UKSW). Her research interests mainly concern personality psychology, especially the broadly understood trait personality structure in childhood and adolescence, "dark" aspects of personality, and measurement in psychology.

Dr. Rebekka Kesberg, University of Sussex (UK)

Dr. Rebekka Kesberg is a Research Fellow at the Psychology department of the University of Sussex.