Understanding and combating misperceived polarization

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By many accounts politics is becoming more polarized, yielding dire consequences for democracy and trust in government. Yet a growing body of research on so-called false polarization finds that perceptions of 'what the other side believes' are inaccurate - specifically, overly pessimistic - and that these inaccuracies exacerbate intergroup conflict. Through a review of existing work and a reanalysis of published data, we (i) develop a typology of the disparate phenomena that are labelled 'polarization', (ii) use that typology to distinguish actual from (mis)perceived polarization, and (iii) identify when misperceived polarization gives rise to actual polarization (e.g. extreme issue attitudes and prejudice). We further suggest that a specific psychological domain is ideal for developing corrective interventions: meta-perception, one's judgement of how they are perceived by others. We review evidence indicating that correcting meta-perception inaccuracies is effective at reducing intergroup conflict and discuss methods for precisely measuring meta-perception accuracy. We argue that the reputational nature of meta-perception provides a motivational mechanism by which individuals are sensitive to the truth, even when those truths pertain to the 'other side'. We conclude by discussing how these insights can be integrated into existing research seeking to understand polarization and its negative consequences. This article is part of the theme issue 'The political brain: neurocognitive and computational mechanisms'.




Lees, J., & Cikara, M. (2021). Understanding and combating misperceived polarization. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 376(1822). https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0143

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