19 October 2020

The Perception Gap

Those concerned about political polarization in the United States will want to take a look at this study: The Perception Gap, sponsored by More in Common as the third of their Hidden Tribes of America studies. From the findings:

To learn how well Americans understand each other, we partnered with global research firm YouGov to survey 2,100 Americans. On issues including climate change, patriotism, sexual assault, police conduct and more, we asked Americans what they themselves believed and what they estimated people on the other side believed. We were then able to calculate the difference between the predictions and reality.

The conclusion? Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other. We call this America’s “Perception Gap”. Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider “extreme”. Even on the most controversial issues in our national debates, Americans are less divided than most of us think. This is good news for those worried about the character of this country. The majority of Americans hold views that may not be so different from your own.

One of the more surprising and disturbing findings concerns education levels:

Education is intended to make us better informed about the world, so we’d expect that the more educated you become, the more you understand what other Americans think. In fact, the more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap – with one critical exception. This trend only holds true for Democrats, not Republicans. In other words, while Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree. 

Why do Democrats, as they become more educated, have a wider Perception Gap? The evidence suggests that it’s likely because they have fewer Republican friends. Highly educated Democrats are the most likely to say that “most of my friends” share their political beliefs. The same is not true of Republicans – more educated Republicans report having about as many Democrat friends as less educated Republicans. And Democrats whose friends are similar to them politically have a significantly wider Perception Gap than those with more political diversity in their friendship groups. 

This particular finding will be a disappointment to those who view higher education as the solution to their nation's ills.

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