New insights from brain and behavioral science explain how polarization is fueled by Americans’ false perceptions about each other, and how we can start to reverse it.
Boston, MA – A new study released today by Beyond Conflict in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) finds that Democrats and Republicans exaggerate how much members of the other party dehumanize, dislike and disagree with them.
“Democrats and Republicans both think that the divide between them is more than twice what it actually is,” UPenn researcher Emile Bruneau says. “While it is troubling that we’re all caught in this mutual illusion, we have the capacity to overcome these false perceptions as Americans.”
The report, titled America’s Divided Mind, features the results of three national surveys over two years to assess the state of political polarization in America. “These findings reveal an opportunity to address a range of false beliefs that Americans hold about each other that lead to fear, distrust, and hostility. We outline a series of actions that individuals and leaders can take to bridge this political divide,” explains Tim Phillips, CEO of Beyond Conflict.
The global nonpartisan organization highlights four actions to mitigate toxic polarization: engage opinion leaders to stop the spread of polarizing rhetoric; create awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions through voter’s guides and outreach to faith and cultural communities; facilitate effective dialogue across the political spectrum, and measure polarization over time.
“Toxic polarization is a continuous threat to American democracy,” says Beyond Conflict postdoctoral fellow at UPenn and lead author Samantha Moore-Berg, “but is that due to how people actually feel about each other? Or is it due to how we think other people feel about us? We do disagree with each other, but not nearly as much as we think we do.”
Similarly to how recent polls show that the majority of Americans agree on the need to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, Democrats and Republicans are also not as far apart as they think on two of the most divisive policy issues facing the nation, immigration and gun control.
This report is part of Beyond Conflict’s efforts to create a nationwide polarization instrument to measure polarization over time, create programs tailored to the psychology of specific regions, and communicate to the public about the risks and consequences of toxic polarization.