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Your political rivals aren’t as bad as you think – that’s how misunderstandings amplify hostility


U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene raised eyebrows when she proposed on Presidents Day that the United States pursue a “national divorce.”

Even in an era of seemingly ever-expanding political polarization – and despite Taylor Greene’s report making controversial statements – the proposal shocked members of both political parties.

“The last thing I ever want to see America is a civil war. Everyone I know would never want that, but it’s going that way and we need to do something about it,” Taylor Greene said in a follow-up interview.

“Everyone I talk to is tired of being bullied by the left, abused by the left, and disrespected by the left.”

It seems safe to say that most left-wingers would be surprised at these accusations. And Taylor Greene certainly failed to indicate that she understands the leftist perspective on the causes of the American political conflict.

Intuitively, misunderstandings – like this one – and hostility often go hand in hand both political And non-political conflicts.

And yet people usually don’t think that their own emotions can be flat out wrong, as, for example, their positions on a matter of fact can be wrong. Is it possible that a feeling is a mistake?

I am a behavioral economist who studies prejudices in belief formation, and in my forthcoming book, “Inappropriate hate“I argue that we do indeed tend to dislike people with whom we disagree—both political and non-political—for a variety of reasons.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump clashed with anti-Trump protesters in New York City in 2017.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

When disliking another person is a mistake

Suppose Jane, a Democrat, overestimates the likelihood of her Republican neighbor Joe taking bad actions or having a bad opinion – by whatever Jane considers “bad.” For example, Jane may overestimate Joe’s resistance to gun control, or overestimate how much animosity Joe feels towards her.

These beliefs likely contribute to Jane’s negative feelings for Joe. If so, since these beliefs are false, Jane would dislike Joe more than she should – by her own standards.

In fact, people in general tend to make this mistake when they disagree with others for many reasons. I call this tendency “affective polarization bias” because it is a tendency toward excessive affective polarization. (“Affective polarizationis the technical term for emotionally hostile polarization.)

To look for evidence of this bias, I review studies of the accuracy of people’s beliefs about opinions of members of the opposing political party. I also examine the validity of beliefs about the selfishness of choices by people in the other party in monetary interest experiments.

My research shows that people are indeed consistently too pessimistic about their partisan counterparts. People on both sides tend to overestimate the other side’s extremism, hostility, interest in political violence and selfishness. And the most affectively polarized people make the biggest mistakes.

A woman wears a red coat and a face mask that says
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene walks into the U.S. Capitol in February 2021.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images


Although “affective polarization bias” is a new term, the concept of inappropriate aversion is intuitive to most people.

The media environment – ​​in particular the distribution of cable and online news like social media – is a common explanation for the recent increase in political hostility, and has probably also led to an increase in inappropriate disgust.

Citizens today are exposed to more polarizing information than in decades past – not just on cable TV, internetand further social mediabut also personally as our social networks offline are particularly ideologically separate, more than ever. As a result, people spend more time talking to others who are like-minded about politics in addition to getting more like-minded news.

although people don’t believe everything they hearthey do wander in the direction of credulityespecially when encountering information they want to believe it’s true – such as information about the character flaws of the opposition party, as this supports our own party’s superiority.

In the U.S, reinforced partisan identity
is emerging because of the merging of partisan identities with other identities – such as someone’s cultural or ethnic background. This has also increased people’s motivation to hold beliefs that demonize the opposition.

In addition, there are several other major causes of unwarranted dislike for our rivals that stem from fundamental cognitive errors.

Overconfidence And naive realism – thinking our tastes are objective truths – cause us to overestimate the likelihood that those who disagree with us on just about everything are doing something wrong. As a result, we overestimate the other party’s poor judgment and motives.

False agreementcan make us overestimate how much others actually agree with us. This, in turn, makes us too skeptical about the sincerity of people who express different points of view.

Last, strategic retaliation coupled with our prejudices, limited memories, and limited foresight is a recipe for escalating inappropriate hostility.

Correct errors

The good news is that mistakes can be corrected. We can undo hate. More and more research efforts are on the way to getting better understand these errors – and to correct them, with impressive success.

Many different non-profit groups are also working on it unite political opponents and to correct misconceptions about the other side. Other scholars and organizations work to make social media less polarizing.

But as unfeasible as it may seem, America may need a bipartisan, top-down effort to stand a chance of significantly reducing unwarranted hatred in the short term.

In the meantime, the next time you feel hatred, remind yourself that it’s probably partly unjustified.

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