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The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart
Over the past 25 years the partisanship of the American electorate has increased (see e.g., here, here, and here), and concern about how this increased partisanship may impact American democracy is now prevalent (see e.g., here, here, and here).
However, new research by More in Common suggests that Americans are more similar to their political opponents than they realize. These new findings are also consistent with previous research by More in Common which found that very few Americans are staunch ideologies (most, they argued, comprise an ‘exhausted majority’ who hold moderate and heterodox views and are frustrated with how extremes seem to dominate our politics and civic life).
The main findings of their new study, “The Perception Gap,” are also consistent with over three-decades of research. Here, we will briefly present their core findings and connect them to the existing scholarly literature.
Some of the big takeaways from the ‘perception gap’ report Include:
- Democrats and Republicans significantly overestimate how many people on the ‘other side’ hold extreme views. Typically, their estimates are roughly double the actual numbers for a given issue.
- Greater partisanship is associated with holding more exaggerated views of one’s political opponents.
- The Perception Gap is strongest on both “Wings” (America’s more politically partisan groups).
- Consumption of most forms of media, including talk radio, newspapers, social media, and local news, is associated with a wider Perception Gap.
- Education seems to increase, rather than mitigate, the Perception Gap (just as increased education has found to track with increased ideological prejudice). College education results in an especially distorted view of Republicans among liberals in particular.
- The wider people’s Perception Gap, the more likely they are to attribute negative personal qualities (like ‘hateful’ or ‘brainwashed’) to their political opponents.
In other words, these data suggest that Americans know what positions the different political parties typically hold and disagree on (e.g., pro-choice or pro-life; for more government regulation of the economy or for less government regulation of the economy), but they exaggerate the difference between themselves and the constituents of rival parties. The more partisan they are, the more they exaggerate partisan differences (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Perception Gap by political tribe (for definitions of each tribe see here).
As can be seen in the table below which documents over two decades of peer-reviewed scholarship, the exaggeration of differences between rival political groups reported by More in Common should not be surprising — nor their finding that greater partisanship increases the exaggeration of these perceived differences — nor their finding that increased information or reflectiveness fails to ameliorate the perception gap.
Overall conclusions about the ‘perception gap’ and its implications follow this brief literature review:
The findings reported by More in Common should be treated as an additional data point for the table above. All studies have flaws and all of the studies listed here can be criticized to some degree. Some have small sample sizes and/or non-representative samples. Others, that made an effort to obtain representative probability samples, can be critiqued on how the questions are worded.
Thus, on the one hand it is not surprising that More in Common’s conclusions have already been criticized. Critique of methodology and statistical analysis is always welcome, they are one of the primary driving forces of scientific investigation. On the other hand, however, the findings reported by More in Common are remarkably similar to each of the studies documented above. Furthermore, the studies documented in Table 1 run the gamut from small unrepresentative samples, to larger unrepresentative samples, to nationally representative probability samples, and finally to cross-sectional analyses of the American National Election Study. That so many different samples yield similar results, lends a good deal of support to the conclusions that More in Common reached.
The political Perception Gap appears to be very real. Ignoring or dismissing this fact is not going to reduce it. In fact, as suggested by Chambers & Melnyk (2006) and Chambers et al. (2006), it may exacerbate it. Thus, a more salient question may be, “what can be done about it?” given that many of the most intuitively obvious correctives — education, the media (including from flagship publications like the New York Times, Washington Post et al.) and political engagement — all seem to make the problem worse.
Social media may also contribute to the perception gap by pressuring people to publicly conform to the expected position of their tribe despite the reality that they may hold much more nuanced, even heretical, views (which are often revealed in more private settings); the More in Common study finds that increased sharing of political content on social media correlates with a higher partisan perception gap.
It may be possible to ‘fix’ higher ed and media institutions so that they become part of the solution instead. This is, for instance, what Heterodox Academy hopes to do with respect to institutions of higher learning (and organizations like Solutions Journalism aspire to do for the media).
However, a number of organizations and movements nationwide have also emerged to help people with different commitments, and from different walks of life, engage with one another directly (e.g. The Village Square, Better Angels, Bridge USA, Free Intelligent Conversations — more here). Although these latter efforts have often proven challenging to scale, they offer a means for citizens to sidestep the institutions currently mediating (and often undermining) our engagement with one-another.
It seems plausible that a ‘both/ and’ approach may be most effective here, although more applied research on how to effectively mitigate partisan perception gaps would be helpful.
Citation: Daniel Yudkin et al. (2019). “The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart.” More in Common, June.
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