UC Berkeley press release


Political attitudes in the U.S. are exaggerated, according to UC Berkeley psychologist in studies of "imagined extremism"

by Patricia McBroom

Berkeley -- Extremism in American politics may be greatly exaggerated and the differences between conservatives and liberals partly imagined, according to new research by a UC Berkeley professor of psychology.

Dacher Keltner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, 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, the attitudes of gays and Christian fundamentalists and the choices of English professors toward use of the "Western Canon" in university classes.

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 being able to measure 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 University 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 in a dispute."

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 the 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. Even partisans add to that belief."

"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."

In other studies by Keltner and Robinson, liberals were the ones seen through distorted lenses. That was especially true in a dispute among English professors in California universities over whether to assign only classic western texts like Shakespeare and Homer -- known as the Western Canon -- in literature courses or open it up to new writings by women and minorities.

Keltner interviewed 236 professors of English at 27 universities in California with a survey asking such questions as: Is there one, or more than one, correct interpretation of a literary work? Should

undergraduates learn to appreciate one common culture or diverse cultural heritages? and Have educational standards declined in the last decade?

He also asked the professors to identify themselves as "traditionalists" or "revisionists," and to estimate the attitudes of their opponents on a scale from moderate to extreme. Finally, he asked what book titles they would assign in an introductory English course.

Traditionalists tended to prefer a standard interpretation and a common heritage, while revisionists endorsed principles of relativism and a multicultural education, said Keltner. The book lists of the two sides reflected these preferences, but not nearly to the extent that partisans expected.

Traditionalists greatly misjudged the book lists of their opponents, said Keltner. They expected that every title would be written by a woman or a minority, when in fact, the revisionists kept a good half of the Western Canon on the list.

In general, both partisans exaggerated the differences between the two sides, but traditionalists were much further off the mark and much less aware of the real attitudes of their opponents, said Keltner.

Keltner believes this greater bias on the part of traditionalists was due to their higher status: more of them were tenured professors than among the revisionists. 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 and therefore understand them better.

Neutral professors, however, also believed that the Western Canon dispute was polarized and everyone -- including the revisionists -- assumed that revisionists were more extreme than they really were, said Keltner.

Keltner also has studied partisans in a dispute between gay activists and Christian fundamentalists at the University of Wisconsin and a conflict over abortion between pro-lifers and pro-choice people at Stanford University.

But the most radical instance of imagined extremism came at Stanford University, where Keltner interviewed students who self-identified as conservative or liberal. In this case, he asked them about a racial incident in Howard Beach, N.Y., where a young black man, Michael Griffith, was pursued by a white gang onto a freeway where he was hit and killed by a car.

With a questionnaire designed to gauge the degree of sympathy with either the black victim or the white perpetrators, Keltner found that nearly everyone considered the incident an extreme example of racial injustice. Only small differences separated the attitudes of liberals and conservatives who were universally sympathetic to the black victim.

Yet, they all believed that 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."

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