by Patricia McBroom
Extremism in American politics may be greatly exaggerated and the differences between conservatives and liberals partly imagined, according to new research by a professor of psychology.
Dacher Keltner, assistant professor of psychology, has found that people have a powerful tendency to exaggerate the views of their ideological opponents, seeing, on average, twice as much difference as actually exists.
Moreover, he has turned up this "imagined extremism" in a variety of settings, including conflicts over abortion rights, the interpretation of a racial incident and the attitudes of gays and Christian fundamentalists.
Without fail, both partisans and nonpartisans in political disputes seriously overestimated the polarization between the two sides, said Keltner.
Although a tendency to demonize one's opponent is not a new understanding, Keltner's work breaks new ground in measuring the extent of the effect by gathering hard data on actual versus perceived differences among the parties to a dispute as well as among neutral observers.
His technique, carried out with a colleague at the Harvard Business School, Assistant Professor Robert J. Robinson, was simple.
"We asked people to judge their own attitudes on an issue and then to estimate the attitudes of their opponents, and we found that they exaggerated the magnitude of the conflict by two to four times their actual differences,"said Keltner.
"Almost everyone had a bias in judging opponents, even when we asked them to be careful," he added. "This seems to be a basic mechanism -- that people overlook agreement and polarize their differences."
Keltner explains this behavior with a theory called "naive realism," which holds that people assume they see the world objectively, so that when they encounter someone with different opinions, they attribute the difference to extreme ideology or irrationality.
Because the research has been carried out on a variety of politically charged issues, Keltner has concluded that national politics is suffused with imagined extremism, particularly affecting common perceptions of conservatism and liberalism.
In one of the studies involving attitudes toward a racial incident, for instance, everyone believed that the typical conservative would be more extreme than were the attitudes of conservatives who actually were interviewed. Even conservatives in the group exaggerated the extremism of a "typical" conservative.
"Each conservative thought he was the only moderate," said Keltner. "There really is a pronounced tendency to exaggerate the extremism of both conservatism and liberalism in this country."
"That's not to say there are not extremists, like the militia groups," said Keltner. "But people tend to think of them as typical of conservatives and they are not."
Keltner's research now is showing that status makes a difference in how accurately an individual judges his opponent's attitudes -- the one with higher status makes more mistakes. Keltner thinks this happens because people with lower status pay more attention to their higher status opponents.
A most radical instance of imagined extremism came at Stanford, where Keltner interviewed students who self-identified as conservative or liberal. He asked about a racial incident in which a black man was pursued by a white gang onto a freeway, where he was killed by a car.
With a questionnaire designed to gauge sympathy with either the black victim or the white perpetrators, Keltner found nearly everyone considered the incident an extreme example of racial injustice. Only small differences separated liberals and conservatives, who were universally sympathetic to the black victim.
Yet they all believed conservatives would be unsympathetic. Both groups exaggerated the extremism of a typical conservative by a factor of three, said Keltner.
Not one of the 20 people who considered themselves conservative had the attitudes that everyone attributed to a hypothetical conservative, he said.
Keltner believes these notions of political extremism have dominated national politics until the 1996 election, when voters appeared to make a resounding statement against extremism.
"This tendency to exaggerate extremism excludes the moderate person and the integrative position," said Keltner. "Perhaps now the body politic is calling for a different kind of political discourse."