Perceptions of Political Polarization in America

Monday, September 17, 2012

Leaf Van Boven

Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Colorado Boulder

This talk examines people’s perceptions of the polarization of Americans’ political attitudes. Data come from three decades of American National Election Studies, recent national surveys in the contexts of the 2008 Presidential election and the 2011 Gabrielle Giffords shooting, as well as laboratory experiments regarding hypothetical partisan policies. These analyses yield five conclusions, consistent with psychological theories concerning social identity and egocentric social judgment. First, people generally overestimate the difference in partisan attitudes between Democrats and Republicans. This “false polarization” occurred over three decades (1970-2004) and across multiple issues. Moreover, false polarization has increased at a faster rate than actual attitude polarization. Second, false polarization is larger among Americans who more strongly identify as either Democrat or Republican. The effect of partisan identification on false polarization is partly a defensive response in which people accentuate perceived distinctions between political ingroups and outgroups. Third, false polarization is larger among Americans who themselves hold relatively extreme partisan attitudes, independent of partisan identification. This “polarization projection” is partly because people assume that similar processes influence attitude extremity in themselves and others on both sides of partisan issues. Fourth, false polarization is larger among Americans with ideologically coherent partisan identities and partisan attitudes, that is, those whose personal partisan identification and partisan attitudes are in the same direction. Finally, false polarization predicts civic actions such as voting and campaign involvement, independent of the effects of partisan identification and attitude extremity. Americans who most misperceive political polarization are thus most engaged in political action.


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