Political Polarization: Often Not as Bad as We Think

Does Political Polarization keep you awake at night, do you deeply worry about “Them”?

As a bit of rather encouraging news, a new global study finds people often exaggerate political differences and negative feelings of those on the opposite side of the political divide. What they also reveal is that this misperception can be reduced by informing people of the other side’s true feelings.

What is even more encouraging, and perhaps surprising to some, is that this new study replicates earlier research in the United States, finding the phenomenon to be generalizable across 25 countries.

Study: The general fault in our fault lines

Published in Nature Human Behaviour on April 22, 2021, the abstract explains it as follows …

Pervading global narratives suggest that political polarization is increasing, yet the accuracy of such group meta-perceptions has been drawn into question. A recent US study suggests that these beliefs are inaccurate and drive polarized beliefs about out-groups. However, it also found that informing people of inaccuracies reduces those negative beliefs.

In this work, we explore whether these results generalize to other countries. To achieve this, we replicate two of the original experiments with 10,207 participants across 26 countries. We focus on local group divisions, which we refer to as fault lines. We find broad generalizability for both inaccurate meta-perceptions and reduced negative motive attribution through a simple disclosure intervention.

We conclude that inaccurate and negative group meta-perceptions are exhibited in myriad contexts and that informing individuals of their misperceptions can yield positive benefits for intergroup relations. Such generalizability highlights a robust phenomenon with implications for political discourse worldwide.

Further Details

Via here at Columbia University (but modified a tad to make it a bit more accessible) …

The new study was led by Kai Ruggeri, PhD, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and replicates a 2020 study by Jeffrey Lees and Mina Cikara at Harvard University, who were also co-authors of the new study. The new findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour (previously the article appeared in OSF Preprints).

What did the Original 2020 study Do?

The Lee and Cikara study presented five political scenarios (e.g. banning anonymous political donations or changing the name given to the state highway) whereby one group proposes a change in law or policy which could disadvantage the other political party (Democrat or Republican).

What did this new study do?

The new study replicated experiments from the original paper, testing the findings in 10,207 participants, following the original methodology as closely as possible and adapting group divisions and scenarios to the local political context for each of the other countries. For example, in Canada, they asked participants to respond to proposed changes to the way voting districts are defined; in Sudan, participants considered changes to the way water tariffs are calculated.

“Our study provides evidence that people around the world overestimate the negative feelings of their political opponents, when in fact the other side is often much less negative than the perceptions we harbor about the other group. These misperceptions have real-world consequences, from polarization, intergroup conflict, and increasingly aggressive narratives in traditional and social media.

While differences between the beliefs and actions of opposing political parties undoubtedly exist—particularly on widely covered issues like gun ownership or access to reproductive healthcare—their opinions on less reported issues are often more similar than we think. The findings from our study suggest that focusing on issues without making them partisan matters, while also presenting accurate representations of group beliefs, can directly mitigate the exaggeration of polarization,”

Kai Ruggeri, PhD, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University

A few Further Notes on the Study

The study is a collaboration between 82 authors from 42 institutions; as well as 16 interns and 43 alumni from the Junior Researcher Programme, a global initiative for early career researchers in the behavioral sciences partnering with Columbia Global Programs; 14 students from the Global Scholars Programme in Europe: Global Behavioral Science (GLOBES); and other volunteers.

A few Interesting Quotes from the actual study

In most countries, the perception of both fault-line groups mirrored each other, such that (for example) the Right’s perception of itself closely matched the Left’s perception of itself, and the Right’s perception of the out-group matched the Left’s perception of the out-group. Austria, Slovenia and Sweden all show this pattern… 

This study demonstrates that inaccuracies in group meta-perceptions are a widely generalizable phenomenon on an international scale, such that individuals who identify with a defined group by and large overestimate the negativity of views held by their respective out-group. We find this effect clearly in 25 out of 26 countries

….individuals are likely to overestimate how negatively political out-groups perceive policy actions initiated by their side. Disclosing the true perceptions of the out-group has an additional, meaningful impact on reducing (inaccurate) negative out-group motive attributions. This is not to say that there are no group differences between political groups toward specific actions or in their perceptions of out-groups. We also do not claim that individuals from different political identities will suddenly converge on a common belief set by learning about each other. Instead, it demonstrates that, even where differences may exist, the magnitude of these differences tends to be exaggerated. While these insights should not and will not impact beliefs about a given policy issue or affiliation to a particular political identity, they should reduce unfortunate misperceptions that groups are irreparably divided to extremes. Reducing that belief has the potential to increase social cohesion and wellbeing of populations around the world. 

Why is it like this, why all the Polarization?

Dr Steve Novella explains it within a separate posting as follows …

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.

Bottom Line – We need not tolerate Polarization, there is a better way.

There really is a better way.

I rather like Steve’s list …

  • 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 break such rules at one time or another. Yes, I’m guilty.

We as individuals can actually do better, far better.

I’ll personally strive to do exactly that. Will you join me?

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