Why Do We Often Think So Poorly Of Our Political Opponents?

Misconceptions can create a host of problems.

In the United States today, Americans are highly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Regardless of where one falls, it's highly likely that they think rather poorly of those who fall on the other side of the divide. Is there an explanation for this?

New research suggests that we have poor opinions of those on the other side because we don't actually understand them, because there are many fundamental misconceptions that enable us to see our ideological opponents in a negative light. The findings of a study on this was published in The Journal of Politics.

We document a large and consequential bias in how Americans perceive the major political parties: people tend to considerably overestimate the extent to which party supporters belong to party-stereotypical groups. For instance, people think that 32% of Democrats are LGBT (vs. 6% in reality) and 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year (vs. 2% in reality).

When the picture in our minds is far-removed from reality, it's only natural that our judgment of that is in line with those conceptions. The data suggests that these misperceptions are genuine, but they are not insurmountable.

Misperceptions about out-party composition are associated with partisan affect, beliefs about out-party extremity, and allegiance to one’s own party. When provided information about the out-party’s actual composition, partisans come to see its supporters as less extreme and feel less socially distant from them.

The last part of the study is particularly fascinating. When we get to know those who are on the other side of that divide, things don't seem so bad. It's almost as if the major divide is at least in-part due to the fact that we don't see our opponents all that much, as just the most extreme of each side are the portions that gain media attention.

Are there certain ideological and political difference that will remain in spite of getting to know our opponents? Of course, but if we break down the barriers, we may just see that they aren't all horrible people as is easy to imagine.