From the Center

This viewpoint is from a writer rated Center.

As friendships and family relationships continue to strain or break over political disagreements, Americans are learning firsthand about a new kind of political polarization: affective polarization. Affective polarization is when we not just disagree with the other side, but show contempt for them.

How much we dislike the other side is based in part on what we think they believe, including our beliefs about their political attitudes. Yet a new study suggests we may misperceive what the other side actually believes.

In their journal article “Understanding and Combating Misperceived Polarization,” being released publicly on February 22, professors Jeffrey Lees and Mina Cikara showed that polarization is more than just what we feel about the other side. It is also important when we misperceive the other side. Lees is a behavioral scientist at Clemson who recently received his PhD in Organizational Behavior and Psychology from Harvard, and Cikara is an associate professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Lees and Cikara discovered that we harbor overly negative or pessimistic views about not just what members of the other party believe (first-order misperceptions), but about what they believe about us (second-order misperceptions).

Examples of first-order misperceptions would include statements like “All Republicans oppose gun control,” or “All Democrats oppose gun ownership.” Examples of second-order misperceptions would include ideas like “All Democrats think all Republicans are unintelligent” or “All Republicans think all Democrats are evil.”

Collectively, the authors called this tendency “misperceived polarization.”

Lees and Cikara determined that these misperceptions of the other side’s beliefs strongly fuel our growing animosity toward the other party. Luckily, their study referenced their previous 2019 study, which came with a happy ending: learning about our own false beliefs can fix them, and help reduce resentment toward those not in our political in-group.

The authors are especially interested in exploring second-order misperceptions — the overly negative beliefs about what the other side thinks of us. One example of a second-order misperception would be thinking that the other political side hates your side when they actually have only moderately negative emotions.

Less and Cikara discovered that an informational intervention – exposing the large gap between participants’ perception and reality – is especially effective for reducing affective polarization. They offer a compelling explanation for why this might be so.

As deeply social beings, noted Lees and Cikara, we are especially attuned to beliefs that are more reputationally relevant. Reputational relevance helps make second-order misperceptions so important. Second-order misperceptions impact our relationships with the other side; if we think someone actively dislikes us or is angry with us, it can affect if and how we interact with that person. And if we think everyone on the other political side thinks or feels negatively about us, it can affect if and how we interact with anyone on the other side.

Meanwhile, first-order misperceptions are usually less directly relevant to relationships. Even if we are mistaken about another’s beliefs about a given topic – including attitudes on a given political topic – it will not necessarily impact the connection.

In email correspondence, Dr. Lees provided a simple example. A first-order misperception (e.g., “I think my best friend’s favorite color is blue, but it is actually green”) may not impact a relationship much. Yet a second-order misperception (“I think my best friend is angry at me for my choice of a paint color, but he is not”) would often more substantially impact interactions and relationships.

Perhaps most tellingly for our volatile political climate, Lees and Cikara cited other recent work from Moore-Berg et. al. (2020). Moore-Berg et. al. found that mistaken beliefs about what members of the opposite party think of us are uniquely associated with the willingness to violate democratic norms in favor of in-group loyalty. In other words, being overly pessimistic about what the other side thinks of us is especially dangerous to our democratic republic.

So as we continue to spar over political differences and grow ever more polarized, let’s remind ourselves of what Lees and Cikara’s studies suggest. Maybe those on the other side do not believe what we think they do, and maybe they do not think as badly of us as we think they do.

If we engaged with the other side or came across informational interventions and learned this, we would be less polarized. Of course, the question of how polarization is tearing apart our friendships and families is complex, and the misperceptions in this focused study are only a piece of the larger puzzle. But at the same time, the findings of the study are significant and offer us a partial answer for how we can piece ourselves together again in these divided times.

Rolf Hendriks is a software engineer with a passion for writing. He became involved in the depolarization movement when he joined Braver Angels, participating in Braver Angels book discussions and debates while publishing a depolarization song for the Braver Angels songwriting contest. Rolf has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed by James Coan of Braver Angels (Center bias). It was edited by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).