Through a distorted lens: How perceptions of the "other side" drive toxic division - Starts With Us

Through a distorted lens: How perceptions of the “other side” drive toxic division

We’ve delved into the nature of toxic polarization and how that problem is due to the high level of contempt many of us have for people on the “other side.”

But what lies at the heart of that contempt? 

In America and other highly polarized countries, much of it is based on distorted and overly pessimistic views. We think we understand the people on the “other side,” but we’re often wrong about them. How do we recognize when our perceptions of people we disagree with are way off base?  

Misperceptions are real
The first step for making any change, personal or societal, is to be able to recognize and define the problem. So, are we seeing each other through distorted lenses?

Research shows that many Americans have large “perception gaps”: big differences between what they think their political opponents believe and what those people believe. A study by More In Common found that “Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other” and that “Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider ‘extreme.’”

Another study in 2021 highlighted additional perception gaps, finding that, “Specifically on culture-war issues, partisans are likely to believe a caricatured version of the opposing side’s attitudes.” These misconceptions have “hardened into enduring stereotypes: liberal snowflakes and free-speech police, conservative racists and ‘deplorables.’”

A surprising misperception is that people overestimate how much contempt the “other side” has for them. A 2020 study found that “Democrats and Republicans equally dislike and dehumanize each other but think that the levels of prejudice and dehumanization held by the [other side] are approximately twice as strong” as is the case. And when we think the “other side” hates us a lot, we’ll find ourselves acting more insultingly and aggressively towards them in return. 

None of this is to deny that America has real and serious divides. But our distorted perceptions amplify the toxicity of our divides. This can lead to a spiral of contempt and aggression that makes people less willing to listen to the “other side” or compromise with them. 

A mosaic, not a monolith 
When we identify with a group (like Democrats or Republicans), we tend to see the “other side” as all the same — as a monolithic group — while we see our group as varied and complex. In psychology research, this is known as the “out-group homogeneity effect.” And this is basically how stereotypes work — we see people who are different from us as simplistic caricatures. 

This helps explain why we often have such pessimistic views of our political opponents. We not only focus on the more extreme and unreasonable people on the “other side” — we think all or most of the people in the other group are like those people

Media plays a role here, too, by focusing on our political divisions and giving more airtime to more extreme, polarizing figures. Compounding that, the partisan bias of journalists and pundits can lead to overly pessimistic portrayals of people on the “other side,” which, of course, feeds an increase in animosity

We’re not as different as we think
We don’t just overestimate the extremity of people on the “other side.” We often have distorted views of the reasons for even their more moderate beliefs. We’re prone to reaching for pessimistic explanations when more banal and well-meaning ones will often suffice. 

A 2018 study described many Americans as “baffled by what motivates their opponents” and found that, for most Americans, taking the perspectives of the “other side” was very difficult. In our confusion, it’s easy to imagine the worst — and easy to miss what we have in common. 

In psychology research, false polarization refers to people perceiving more polarization than there is — and research shows this is true for us. This isn’t surprising: when our views of each other are distorted, our views of our divides will be, too. 

Research shows Americans’ values are a lot more aligned than is perceived. For example, a 2023 Starts With Us study found significant alignment on core moral values, despite many people thinking the “other side” doesn’t share those values. 

Research shows that a large majority of Republicans and Democrats express strong support for democratic principles — but has also found that fears of the “other side” can make people condone undemocratic actions. Correcting our distorted views is important because, as researcher Alia Braley said, “You can increase people’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms by lowering their fear of the other side.” 

Another source of pessimism stems from concerns about political violence. There’s a widespread perception that a significant number of Americans, on the right and the left, support political violence. Some estimates have put this as high as 40%! But other work shows that such support is likely much lower. A 2022 study found that such estimates may be overstated by a factor of six. A 2024 paper found this number was likely about 3% (still a concern, but much less concerning than 40%).

On the left, many believe that support for Trump is largely explained by racism, fears of white people losing status, and the like. But this framing has been criticized in various ways. For example, the 2018 paper “Race and the Race for the White House” examined how liberal bias among academics has resulted in overly pessimistic explanations of what motivates Trump voters. (People interested in understanding Trump voter motivations might also like Brian Rees’s book, How Reasonable Americans Could Support Trump.) 

On the Republican side, Trump has amplified overly pessimistic views about Democrats’ beliefs and motivations. For example, let’s look at some statements from emails sent in 2020 by Trump’s team (source: Defusing American Anger):

  • “Democrats hate America.”
  • “They want to…DESTROY your American Dream.”
  • “Joe Biden wants to abolish police, ICE, bail, the suburbs, the 2nd Amendment, and the American Way of Life.”
  • “They’ll attack you in your homes if Joe’s elected.”
  • “Democrats are calling for the removal of statues of Jesus Christ.”

Promoting inaccurate, overly pessimistic views of our political opponents amplifies animosity and toxifies our politics. And the truth is that many of us do this, often without realizing it.

We can change this dynamic 
You may not agree with all of the points in this piece (after all, when do we ever all agree?), but hopefully, you can see the main point: Americans see each other in distorted ways, and these distortions amplify our divides. At the very least, maybe you can see the wisdom of embracing some humility when it comes to your views of your political opponents. 

A common objection to getting people to join the depolarization movement goes something like, “Our divides aren’t our fault; this is the other group’s fault.” But when we see the role our distorted views play, we’re better positioned to see that people across the political spectrum contribute to this problem — including ourselves! (And, as always, you or I can see these things even while thinking, “One political group contributes more than another.”) 

We’ll always have major disagreements, to be sure. But trying to see each other more clearly helps us disagree in better, healthier ways. We’ll have less undue hate towards our fellow citizens and be better able to see our common bonds. And this will help us work together to achieve multi-partisan solutions and help us avoid dysfunction and chaos.

Toxic polarization is a large, complex problem with many factors. But one thing we can all do to reduce it is examine our role in the equation. How we and other Americans engage with each other helps form our culture. Making our culture less toxic starts with us.

Want to help spread the word and be a part of this movement? Here are some ideas:

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