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We're not as polarized as we think we are

- July 2, 2014

Politics probably “feels” polarized to most of us — and, in important ways, it is.  But that feeling may reflect our own misperceptions as well as the facts.  Or such is the conclusion of new research (gated version here) by Doug Ahler, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ahler’s study begins with a survey of registered voters in California.  They were asked to say where “Californians who call themselves liberal” and “Californians who call themselves conservative” stand on two issues: how much the government should manage social welfare and the economy, and how much we should prioritize protecting the environment versus protecting jobs. The striking finding?  Both liberals and conservatives thought that “liberals” and “conservatives” were more polarized than they actually were.
Take the question about how much the government should manage social welfare and the economy.  Respondents could pick any number between 1 and 7, where 1 was the most “pro-government” position and 7 the most “anti-government” position.  In reality, the average position for liberals was 3.7 and the average position for conservatives was 5.2–a difference of 1.5 points.  That is, liberals and conservatives were definitively on opposite sides of the issue, as you might suspect, but not at the most polarized positions possible.
Liberal respondents, however, believed that “liberals” were at 3.5 and “conservatives” at 5.5 — a difference of two points.  Conservative respondents believed that “liberals” were at 2.7 and “conservatives” at 5.6 — a difference of almost 3 points.  In other words, perceived polarization was much greater than actual polarization.
Ahler then did an experiment.  He had some participants in the experiment do the same task as these California survey respondents: indicate where they thought liberals and conservatives stood on three different political issues.  With a second group of participants, however, he actually told them the correct positions of liberals and conservatives.
What difference did clearing up any misperceptions make?  Ahler then asked respondents their own views on these issues.  Participants given the correct information were 8 percent more moderate than those not given the correct information.  Among participants who actually reported being surprised by this correct information, the effect was even larger: this group became 13 percent more moderate.
In other words, telling people that the world isn’t as polarized as they thought actually made their own views more moderate. To be sure, there are real differences in political opinions between liberals and conservatives.  But Ahler’s work — as well as some other research — suggests that we don’t perceive those differences accurately.  Our own ideologies appear to function as red or blue filters, when in fact the reality is a bit more purple.

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