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The Buzz: Is Polarization Exaggerated?

The Buzz: Is Polarization Exaggerated?

January 2024

Here’s some encouraging news: That political polarization we hear so much about these days might not be as bad as we’re led to believe. A research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that “perceived polarization [is] substantially greater than actual polarization,” a phenomenon rooted in tricks our brains play on us, plus encouragement by political leaders.

From tests of how Americans of different party loyalties respond to broad assertions about the other party and its members (“generic” statements), political scientists from Columbia University, Stony Brook University and the University of Michigan concluded that we tend to attribute such assertions (“Democrats want to defund the police,” for example) to virtually all Democrats when the percentage who hold such a belief is in fact considerably lower.

The study of Democrats and Republicans, which drew on cognitive science as well as political science, concluded that our brains exacerbate the problem by converting even qualified assertions (“Many Republicans…”) into sweeping claims. We are also more likely to remember generic statements than more qualified ones.

Posted in November, the study theorized that the use by political leaders of overly broad statements about the opposition is not done to consciously deceive the public; this kind of language is used simply because generic statements “sound more powerful, confident, important [and] persuasive.” The result is that people of both major parties hold “mental representations of political claims that exaggerate differences between parties.”

This is worth keeping in mind as we craft our own appeals to members of the American public who — it seems from the research — are less extreme in their actual beliefs than commonly understood.

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