Abstract This paper proposes the following mechanism whereby polarization of beliefs could eliminate political gridlock instead of intensifying disagreement: the expectation of political payoffs from being proven correct by a policy failure could drive decision makers who do not believe in the new policy to agree to policy experimentation, because they are confident that the experiment will fail, thus increasing their political power. We formalize this mechanism in a collective decision making model in the presence of heterogeneous beliefs in which any decision other than the default option requires unanimity. We show that this consideration of political payoffs can eliminate the inefficiency caused by a unanimous consent requirement when beliefs are polarized, but could also create under-experimentation when two actors hold beliefs that differ only slightly from one another. We further show that this under-experimentation can be reduced when the political payoffs become endogenous. We illustrate the empirical relevance of the mechanism in two examples with historical narratives: we focus on the decision making process of the Chinese leadership during the country’s transition starting in the late 1970s, and we further apply the model to the disagreement within the leadership of the Allied Forces on the Western Front of World War II in the autumn of 1944. Highlights We propose a novel mechanism whereby polarization of beliefs could eliminate political gridlock instead of intensifying disagreement. We formalize the mechanism by building a collective decision making model in the presence of heterogeneous beliefs with a unanimity decision rule. The expectation of political payoffs from being proven correct could drive decision makers who do not believe in a new policy to agree on policy experimentation. Welfare implications of the political payoffs depend on the pattern of decision makers’ beliefs and whether the political payoffs are endogenous or exogenous. We provide the empirical relevance and practical feasibility of the mechanism using historical narratives about the strategy choice of the Chinese transition from the planned economy and the Allied Forces’ decision to implement Operation Market–Garden.
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