PACS news / July 20, 2021

New Study Uses Crowdsourcing to Strengthen American Democracy

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge will bring together academics, practitioners, and industry experts to identify solutions for pressing political problems.

Americans have always disagreed about politics, but now levels of anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and partisan animosity have reached concerning levels. While there are many ideas for tackling these problems, they have never been gathered, tested, and evaluated in a unified effort. To address this gap, the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab is launching a major new initiative. The Strengthening Democracy Challenge will collect and rigorously test up to 25 interventions to reduce anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and partisan animosity in one massive online experiment with up to 30,000 participants. Interventions can be contributed by academics, practitioners, or others with interest in strengthening democratic principles in the US. The researchers who organize the challenge — a multidisciplinary team with members at Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, and Columbia Universities — believe that crowdsourcing ideas, combined with the rigor of large-scale experimentation, can help address issues as substantial and complex as these.

“Anti-democratic attitudes and support for political violence are at alarming levels in the US. We know partisan animosity has been increasing for years, and may play a role in the concerning anti-democratic attitudes we’re seeing,” said Robb Willer, director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab and Professor of Sociology at Stanford. “We view this project as a chance to identify efficacious interventions, and also to deepen our understanding of the forces shaping these political sentiments.”

“There are many potential ways to reduce anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and partisan animosity. We designed our project to achieve goals beyond the scale of typical scientific studies,” said Jan Voelkel, a Ph.D. student at Stanford and one of the co-organizers of the challenge. “The Strengthening Democracy Challenge estimates the relative effectiveness of different interventions, provides a high-quality testing opportunity to scholars and practitioners who may currently lack access, unifies the currently dispersed knowledge across different social sciences and practitioners, and is committed to unbiased and complete reporting of results.”

Crowdsourcing Interventions

The team that organizes the challenge includes researchers from political science, psychology, sociology, and economics. They will work closely with practitioners to make sure the challenge is accessible not only to academics, but also to contributors from nonprofit and advocacy groups beyond academia working on these problems. They plan to crowdsource interventions and scientifically evaluate them in one of the largest survey experiments ever conducted.

“Our lab has worked on these outcomes a great deal, but we believe the most efficient way to identify promising interventions is to gather insights from as large a community of thinkers as possible, and not only academics. So we started this, our first mass collaboration project, to scale up our efforts to collaborate with colleagues from different fields and practitioners, explained Willer. “We were inspired by other mass collaboration projects, such as Axelrod’s classic prisoner’s dilemma tournament, the Fragile Families Challenge, and the Open Science Collaborations. Crowdsourcing promising ideas, and then testing them in parallel, is a compelling model for producing a lot of knowledge efficiently,” explains Willer.

Researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives are invited to submit interventions. The proposed interventions must be short, doable in an online form, and follow the ethical guidelines of the challenge. Academic and practitioner experts will rate the submissions and an editorial board will narrow down the 25 best submissions to be tested, taking novelty and expected success of the ideas into account. Co-organizers of the challenge include James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, David Rand, the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, James Chu, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and Nick Stagnaro, Post-Doctoral Fellow at MIT. The organizing team is supported by Polarization and Social Change Lab’s Chrystal RedekoppJoe Mernyk, and Sophia Pink.

The study participants will be a large sample of up to 30,000 self-identified Republicans and Democrats, nationally representative on several major demographic benchmarks.

Submitting to the Challenge

“The challenge offers submitters a number of reasons to take part, most of all the opportunity to work on these pressing social problems,” Willer said. 

Contributors of those interventions that are selected to be tested will learn whether their idea worked, receive authorship on an academic paper, and will be recognized at a conference organized by Stanford’s PACS’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, the Civic Health Project, and the Fetzer Institute. At this conference the Strengthening Democracy Challenge results will be publicly presented. A cash prize of up to $15,000 will be split between the teams submitting interventions that significantly reduce anti-democratic attitudes; the same amount will be split between the teams submitting interventions that significantly reduce support for partisan violence, and another prize of up to $15,000 will be awarded to those whose interventions significantly reduce partisan animosity.

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge is supported by Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Societythe Civic Health Project, and the Fetzer Institute. To learn more about the challenge, visit a comprehensive website for guidelines, a submission handbook, links to apply, and contact for any questions before and during submission. 


Robb Willer, Sociology: (607) 339-6466, @RobbWiller

Chrystal Redekopp, Stanford PASCL Research Director: