Research Explains How Politics Divide Us More than We Actually Are

Summary of:

Beyond Conflict. (2020). America’s divided mind: Understanding the psychology that drives us apart. Beyond Conflict. https://beyondconflictint.org/americas-divided-mind/ 

Background & Theory

The article examines why there is such a strong political divide in the United States and the psychological factors that both cause and continue it. 

Research Questions

Beyond Conflict compiled “America’s divided mind: Understanding the psychology that drives us apart” to help us understand:

  1. Why are Americans so divided politically?
  2. What can be done to ease tensions?

Methods

The authors conducted their research by distributing a survey over a period of nine months and included more than 3,000 participants. All participants were Americans, and the questions focused on their perception of the political parties (primarily Democrats and Republicans) and how much each party disliked, disagreed, and dehumanized the other. This data was then compared to how much this was true based on accurate levels of dislike, disagreement, and dehumanization. Questions surrounding their allegiance to their party, and how much trust they had in civic institutions were also asked in order to better understand how the misconceptions may impact these areas.

Results

The most critical finding the authors discovered is that Americans are divided, but not nearly as much as we may believe. This is found to contribute to the tension and possibly make it worse. The data shows 82% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats over-exaggerated about the other party compared to what was true in terms of dehumanization. When it came to how much each party disliked the other, 82% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats overestimated what was true.

To measure disagreement, a point system was used where those surveyed assigned a “score” to the other party; on both issues evaluated, each party’s perception far exceeded what was true for the other party on those issues. It’s shown overall that both parties primarily want to support the best interests of the country opposed to just that of the party (though over 20% of both parties disagree), but that the general misunderstanding of being disliked by the “other” has lowered trust in civic institutions. Beyond Conflict recommends awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions, stopping the spread of polarizing narratives, encouraging more bi-partisan dialogue, and continuing evaluating what drives Americans apart (from a psychological perspective) in order to ease the political tensions and help Americans see where we are unified as opposed to divided.

What This Means

  • One’s thoughts and perceptions play a large role in creating and continuing conflict. Both Republicans and Democrats are shown to believe false perceptions of the other group, and this has only contributed more to division and misunderstandings, as well as hindering real bi-partisan progress.
  • Helping people understand where there are misperceptions and where there is common ground may help prevent or resolve conflict.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Having information about what all parties believe in conflict versus what is actually true, and finding ways to help the parties understand the truth, can greatly contribute to resolving conflict in certain situations.

For everyone: Try to be open-minded and willing to see outside of your own narrative; this can prevent conflict from ever occurring in some situations.