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Study: Political polarization often exaggerated, not as strong as people think

Study: Political polarization often exaggerated, not as strong as people think
New research suggests people often overestimate political differences and the negative feelings of their political opponents. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

April 22 (UPI) -- According to a new study, people often exaggerate their political differences and the negative feelings of those on the other side of the aisle.

The findings, published Thursday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, suggests political polarization is often not as strong as it is made out to be.

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The experiments also showed negative feelings about the political opposition can be reduced by informing people of the other side's true feelings.

For the research, scientists adapted a study first conducted in the United States for 25 other countries, proving the original findings to be generalizable across a variety of political landscapes.

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Following the original experiment as closely as possible, scientists presented participants with a variety of political scenarios in which a policy change proposed by one group has the potential to disadvantage the opposing political party. In each country, scientists tweaked the scenarios to reflect local politics.

In Canada, for example, researchers had participants respond to proposed changes to the way voting districts are determined. In Sudan, one of the presented scenarios involved proposed changes to the way water tariffs are calculated.

Researchers had groups react to different political scenarios, as well as predict how supporters of the opposite political party or group would react to a variety of political scenarios.

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"Our study provides evidence that people around the world overestimate the negative feelings of their political opponents, when in fact the other side is often much less negative than the perceptions we harbor about the other group," lead study author Kai Ruggeri said in a news release.

"These misperceptions have real-world consequences, from polarization, intergroup conflict, and increasingly aggressive narratives in traditional and social media," said Ruggeri, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

People's distorted perceptions of political differences can be at least partially neutralized, researchers found, by informing people of the other side's true feelings.

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"While differences between the beliefs and actions of opposing political parties undoubtedly exist -- particularly on widely covered issues like gun ownership or access to reproductive healthcare -- their opinions on less reported issues are often more similar than we think," Ruggeri said.

"The findings from our study suggest that focusing on issues without making them partisan matters, while also presenting accurate representations of group beliefs, can directly mitigate the exaggeration of polarization," he said.

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