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The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2021

Aarhus University, Denmark
Aarhus University, Denmark
Alexander Bor, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark,
Michael Bang Petersen, Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark,


Why are online discussions about politics more hostile than offline discussions? A popular answer argues that human psychology is tailored for face-to-face interaction and people’s behavior therefore changes for the worse in impersonal online discussions. We provide a theoretical formalization and empirical test of this explanation: the mismatch hypothesis. We argue that mismatches between human psychology and novel features of online environments could (a) change people’s behavior, (b) create adverse selection effects, and (c) bias people’s perceptions. Across eight studies, leveraging cross-national surveys and behavioral experiments (total N = 8,434), we test the mismatch hypothesis but only find evidence for limited selection effects. Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline. Finally, we offer initial evidence that online discussions feel more hostile, in part, because the behavior of such individuals is more visible online than offline.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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