The conventional wisdom is that America is becoming more polarized politically, but new research suggests that may be because we tend to focus on the extremes.
Two new studies find that political polarization has remained relatively unchanged since the 1970's.
According to Live Science, the first looked at how people viewed their own political beliefs in relation to others.
They found that actual polarization has remained steady since the 1970s. The historical responses also showed that people have always overestimated polarization. Even decades ago, in times now remembered as cooperative and cordial, people pegged political disagreements as much more vast than they really were. [Life's Extremes: Democrat vs. Republican]
When the researchers broke down the respondents by political positions, they found that not everyone judges polarization in the same way. Everyone overestimates it, but political independents are much closer to the mark than strong Republicans or strong Democrats, who tend to see the gulf between themselves and the other party as impossibly wide. Moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats were in-between, perceiving more polarization than independents but less than the extreme ends of the parties.
The second study looked at why those at the extremes tended to overestimate polarization. They found that people tend to project their own strong emotions on to others.
In their study, they presented students with a fictional policy that would try to lure out-of-state students to campus with preferential treatment, including first pick of classes and dorms.
Unsurprisingly, this fake proposal yielded polarized views. "This proposal is bulls---!" one student wrote. Another indicated support, adding, "I am biased, because I am out of state, and I want the sweet hookups."
When the researchers asked students to indicate how they though other students felt about the proposal, those who themselves opposed or supported it most strongly assumed that others would also feel strongly, in support or opposition.
When asked how they came to their conclusions about the proposal and how they believed others came to their conclusions, the students gave themselves credit for more fairness and less self-interest than they did others. But they also assumed that everyone gave equal weight to emotion and extensive thought.