Most Americans believe that the country is divided on core political issues. But is this belief well-founded? A recent study by researchers in Boston, Philadelphia and Israel, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, set out to challenge this oft-cited paradigm.
Theoretical and empirical evidence demonstrates that groups often have “meta-perceptions” about other groups that are significantly divergent from reality.
Meta-perceptions refer to one’s beliefs about how one is perceived by another. In the case of the present study, the authors measured the degree of meta-dehumanization (how much does the other group dehumanize us?) and meta-prejudice (how prejudiced is the other group against us?) between Republicans and Democrats.
The results are of great scientific and political interest, and demonstrate that to surprisingly frequent, elevated and similar degrees, Republicans and Democrats both hold meta-beliefs about the other party that are significantly off the mark.
In general, Republicans believe that Democrats hold more dehumanizing and more prejudicial views towards Republicans than they actually do, and vice-versa. This isn’t to say that each party doesn’t harbor these feelings toward the other group at all. On the contrary, both groups demonstrated greater dehumanization and greater prejudice toward members of the other group. However, both groups believe the other party does it more than they actually do.
In addition and importantly, both groups believe the other party was more dehumanizing and more prejudicial than even the most Democratic or the most Republican participants in the study. This provides evidence against the idea that beliefs are drawn based on the worst members of each group. In other words, it is a psychological myth, and not a heuristic strategy (like applying the traits of a few members of a group to all of them.)
Americans are divided on political issues, and Republicans and Democrats both dehumanize and demonstrate prejudicial thoughts against others. But, as this study shows, they are perhaps not so widely divided as one might think—and the opposition is not so terrible as one might be led, by one’s own brain, to believe.
Another significant finding was that meta-perceptions, and especially meta-dehumanization, led to real-world political consequences, like supporting “spiteful” policies that undermine the other party even if they are detrimental to America’s democratic process or engaging in social distancing. The more one thinks the opposition dehumanizes them, the less they care about fair politics, it seems (a particularly salient finding in light of recent electoral events in America).
Understanding how meta-beliefs affect partisan politics, and especially how they may erode the fundamental pillars of American democracy, is a key goal of political psychology. The findings of this study are important in this light, but they are not necessarily limited to the political arena.
It is likely that all groups that exist in some kind of moral or political opposition make such judgements about outgroup members; something to bear in mind when making decisions about how to interact with them.
The study, “Exaggerated meta-perceptions predict intergroup hostility between American political partisans“, was authored by Samantha L. Moore-Berg, Lee-Or Ankori-Karlinsky, Boaz Hameiri, and Emile Bruneau.