Apr 26 2021

Political Polarization is Exaggerated

Humans are tribal by nature. We tend to sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups, and then we engage in confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to believe mostly positive things about our in-group, and mostly negative things about the out-group. This is particularly dangerous in a species with advanced weaponry. But even short of mutual annihilation, these tendencies can make for a lot of problems, and frustrate our attempts at running a stable democracy.

Part of this psychological tribalism is that we tend to exaggerate what we assume are the negative feelings of the other group toward our own. Prior research has shown this, and a new study also demonstrates this exaggerated polarization and negativity. There are a few reasons for this. One is basic tribal psychology as outlined above. Other cognitive biases, like oversimplification and a desire for moral clarity, motivate us to craft cardboard strawmen out of our political opponents. We come to assume that their position is either in bad faith, and/or is simplistic nonsense. We tend to ignore all nuance in our opponent’s position, fail to consider the justifiable reasons they may have for their position and the commonality of our goals. Ironically this view is simplistic and may motivate us to act in bad faith, which fuels these same beliefs about us by the other side, creating a cycle of radicalization.

This process is helped along by the media, both traditional and social media. Social media tends to form echochambers where our radicalized simplistic view of the “other side” can become more extreme. Also, impersonal online interactions (just read the comments here) may allow us to engage with the cardboard fiction in our minds rather than the real person at the other end.

Traditional media contributes to this phenomenon by focusing on issues in conflict at the expense of issues where there is more consensus and commonality. The media likes conflict, and this give everyone a distorted view of how much polarization there actually is.

For example, when you ask Democrats and Republicans to estimate the portion of the other side that would agree with reasonable positions typically associated with your own side there is a perception gap of 25% on average. For example, if you ask Democrats how may Republicans would agree with the statement: “Racism is still a problem in America” they predict 50% will agree, while 78% do. And if you ask Republicans how many Democrats would agree with the statement: “Law abiding citizens should have the right to bear arms,” there is a 24% perception gap (46% compared to 70%). The other side is far more reasonable, with more nuanced opinions, than we assume.


This perception gap is not affected by education levels. It is, however, increased by consuming partisan media and sharing political news on social media. The most impressive effect comes from where people get their news. The more partisan cable news networks, radio shows, and social media outlets are associated with an increase in the perception gap among their viewers, while the old-school ABC, CBS, NBC news outlets actually decrease the perception gap. This may have something to do with the fact that the older news networks established their culture during the FCC mandated fairness doctrine, while many of the newer ones came into existence partly as a reaction to getting rid of the fairness doctrine.

Some networks have gone beyond merely reinforcing the perception gap to weaponizing it – in some cases literally demonizing the other side. Increasingly radicalized viewers then need increasingly radicalized content to appeal to them, so networks compete with each other to be more and more radical.

How do we step back from all of this?

Individually there is a lot we all can do.

  • Try to get your news from neutral and balanced sources, and use multiple sources. Avoid partisan sources, even if they make you feel good in the moment. Avoid echochambers as a source of information.
  • Seek out the other perspective. Before you accept a position, see what those who disagree with that position have to say. Don’t let one side tell you what the other side thinks and feels – let everyone speak for themselves.
  • Apply the principle of charity. It is a good starting assumption that most people think of themselves as reasonable good people. And mostly we all want the same things – justice, security, liberty, fairness. We may have different priorities, experiences, and belief-systems, but there is likely far more of a core of commonality than you might naively assume.
  • Listen. Don’t simply talk (or write) at someone as if they are a representative cardboard cutout of the stereotyped “other side” you have been told about. Engage with what they actually say, and you may find a more reasonable and nuanced opinion than you assumed.
  • Seek common ground. That is a good starting point for any discussion.
  • Don’t assume bad-faith on the other side. There are bad-faith actors out there, but it is too easy to just assume that about people who disagree with you. Give people the benefit of the doubt, and you will be right most of the time. Of course people may prove themselves to be bad actors, and then you can call them out, but make sure you don’t go beyond the evidence you have.
  • Keep in mind that in any exchange, your position may be the one that is wrong, or both sides may have something to learn from the other. We tend to think we are the one who is right in any disagreement, which means collectively we are all wrong at least 50% of the time.
  • And of course – apply critical thinking as much as possible. Understand and avoid common cognitive biases and logical fallacies – but don’t use these as weapons against others, use them to improve your own thinking.

We all violate these rules at least some of the time, but it is good to have an ideal to strive for. Just try it. Talk to someone who profoundly disagrees with you as if they are a reasonable person with some justification for their position. Try it out and see what happens. You may be surprised.

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