Segregation and clustering of preferences erode socially beneficial coordination


With different types and manifestations of increasing polarization, it is crucial to understand their impact on the processes of promoting well-being in society. This understanding is important when polarization interrupts optimal outcomes both socially and individually. We propose a model and a framework to study and quantify the relationship between polarization and coordination capacity. We show, analytically, that a certain diversity of opinions can be beneficial to coordination. Next, we explore, both computationally and experimentally, the role that the properties of networks, namely segregation and biased perceptions, play in the erosion of coordination and the distancing of societies from the social optimum. We expect this work to provide the basis for future research on the link between polarization of opinion and social outcomes.


Polarization on various issues has increased in many Western democracies over the past decades, resulting in divergent beliefs, preferences and behaviors within societies. We develop a model to study the effects of polarization on the probability that a society will coordinate on an action to improve well-being in a context in which collective benefits are acquired only if enough individuals take this action. . We examine the impacts of different manifestations of polarization: heterogeneity of preferences, segregation of the social network, and interaction between the two. In this context, heterogeneity captures the differential perceived benefits of coordination, which can lead to different intentions and sensitivity about the intentions of others. Social network segregation can create a bottleneck in the flow of information about the preferences of others, as individuals can base their decisions solely on their close neighbors. Moreover, heterogeneous preferences can be evenly distributed in the population or clustered in the local network, respectively reflecting or deviating from the views of the society at large. The model predicts that preference heterogeneity alone is harmless and may even be beneficial, while segregation can hinder coordination, mainly when local networks distort the distribution of ratings. We base these results on a multi-method approach including an online group experience with 750 individuals. We randomize the range of ratings associated with the different choice options and the information respondents have about others. The experimental results reinforce the idea that, even in a situation where all could benefit from coordination, polarization can hamper social progress.


    • Accepted September 22, 2021.
  • Author contributions: research designed by VVV, SMC, AD, EW and SL; VVV, SMC, AD and ML carried out research; VVV, SMC and AD contributed new reagents / analytical tools; Data analyzed by VVV, SMC, AD and ML; and VVV, SMC and AD wrote the article.

  • The authors declare no competing interests.

  • This article is a direct PNAS submission. CP is a guest editor invited by the Editorial Board.

  • This article contains additional information online at

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