Your Political Rivals Aren’t as Bad as You Think – Here’s How Misunderstandings Amplify Hostility

Yves here. On the one hand, Americans are terrible about handling dissent. I recall when I was in Sydney that Australians were generally very skilled at talking across political lines, in part due to their use of humor.

On the other hand, a lot of influential figures on the right and soi-disant left have become unduly fond of authoritarianism.

By Daniel F. Stone, Associate professor of economics, Bowdoin College. Originally published at The Conversation

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene drew raised eyebrows when she suggested on Presidents Day that the United States pursue a “national divorce.”

Even in an era of seemingly ever-growing political polarization – and despite Taylor Greene’s record of making controversial statements – the proposal shocked members of both political parties.

“The last thing I ever want to see in America is a civil war. Everyone I know would never want that – but it’s going that direction, and we have to do something about it,” Taylor Greene said in a follow-up interview.

“Everyone I talk to is fed up with being bullied by the left, abused by the left, and disrespected by the left.”

It seems safe to say that most left-leaning people would be puzzled by these accusations. And Taylor Greene certainly didn’t indicate that she understands the left’s perspective on causes of U.S. political conflict.

It’s intuitive that misunderstandings – like these – and hostility often go hand in hand, in both political and nonpolitical conflicts.

And yet people don’t usually think that their own emotions can be downright wrong, the way, say, their positions on a factual issue can be incorrect. Is it possible for a feeling to be a mistake?

I am a behavioral economist who studies biases in belief formation, and in my forthcoming book, “Undue Hate,” I argue that we indeed tend to excessively dislike people we disagree with – on both political and nonpolitical topics – for a variety of reasons.

When Disliking Another Person is a Mistake

Suppose Jane, a Democrat, overestimates the likelihood her Republican neighbor Joe takes bad actions or has bad opinions – by whatever Jane considers “bad.” For example, Jane might overestimate Joe’s opposition to gun control – or overestimate how much hostility Joe feels toward her.

These beliefs likely contribute to Jane’s negative feelings toward Joe. If so, since these beliefs are mistaken, then Jane would dislike Joe more than she should – by her own standards.

In fact, people in general have a tendency to make this mistake when disagreeing with others for many reasons. I call this tendency “affective polarization bias,” since it’s a bias toward excessive affective polarization. (“Affective polarization” is the technical term for emotionally hostile polarization.)

To look for evidence of this bias, I review studies of the accuracy of people’s beliefs about opinions held by members of the other political party. I also examine the accuracy of beliefs about the selfishness of choices by people in the other party in experiments with monetary stakes.

My research shows that people are indeed consistently too pessimistic about their partisan counterparts. On both sides, people tend to overestimate the other side’s extremism, hostility, interest in political violence and selfishness. And the most affectively polarized people make the biggest mistakes.


Although “affective polarization bias” is a new term, the concept of undue dislike is intuitive for most people.

The media environment – specifically the proliferation of cable and online news as well as social media – is a common explanation for recent growth in political hostility, and has likely also led to growth in undue dislike.

Citizens are exposed to more polarizing information today than in decades past – not just on cable TV, online, and on social media, but also in person as our social networks offline are particularly ideologically segregated, more so than ever. As a result, people spend more time talking to others who are like-minded about politics, in addition to getting more like-minded news.

Although people don’t believe everything they hear, they do err toward credulity, especially when encountering information they wish to believe is true – like information about the opposition party’s character flaws, since this supports the superiority of our own party.

In the U.S., strengthened partisan identity has been on the rise because of the merging of partisan identities with other identities– like someone’s cultural or ethnic background. This has also increased people’s motivation to hold beliefs demonizing the opposition.

What’s more, there are several other important causes of undue dislike toward our rivals stemming from fundamental cognitive errors.

Overconfidence and naïve realism – thinking our tastes are objective truths – make us overestimate the chance that those who disagree with us on just about anything are doing something wrong. As a result we overestimate the other side’s poor judgment and bad motives.

False consensus” can make us overestimate how much others actually agree with us. This in turn makes us too skeptical of the sincerity of people who express different viewpoints.

Last and not least, strategic retaliation in conjunction with our biases, limited memories and limited foresight is a recipe for escalating undue hostility.

Correcting Mistakes

The good news is that mistakes can be corrected. We can undo hate. More and more research efforts are underway to better understand these mistakes – and to correct them, with impressive success.

Many different nonprofit groups are also working to bring political opponents together and to correct misconceptionsabout the other side. Other scholars and organizations are working to make social media less polarizing.

But as infeasible as it might seem, America may need a bipartisan, top-down effort to have a shot at significantly decreasing unwarranted hatred in the short run.

In the meantime, the next time you feel hate – remind yourself it’s probably partly undue.

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  1. Ready Go Set

    There is money in disagreement. Follow the money to understand more why Americans disagree vehemently.

    1. digi_owl

      In particular if the monied ones can get the lower classes to disagree with each other rather than agree to gang up on the monied.

    2. Adam Eran

      Squirrel!…er, I mean LGBTQ person! It’s all about the distraction.

      Meanwhile, 40% of the population hasn’t got enough savings to handle a $400 emergency, and 65% of seniors have only Social Security to fund their retirement.

  2. Jeff

    Getting us to hate and fear those we disagree with is a very profitable business model for media. It’s only recently that independent media has proven there’s an appetite for news that bucks this.

    Still a long way to go.

    Even here it was obvious how many (most?) commenters felt about those of us who disagreed about COVID response measures. Similar response I’ve seen between groups who felt rage and fear of Trump supporters and J6, Russia/Ukraine rage, climate change, Biden’s incompetence /corruption and on and on.

    We have to stop yelling at people with no power. That’s most of us.

    1. Stephen

      Exactly. The equivalent in the U.K. has been the sheer hatred that erupted over Brexit. From both sides.

      After the vote in 2016, the local managing partner of my then firm posted an open email to the office criticising anyone who voted for Brexit as effectively being an imbecile.

      Whatever the pros and cons of Brexit (which had lots of proxies for all sorts of other issues) this was an illustration of the point about hatred. The west also engages in this with respect to overseas policy: I have lost count of how many foreign leaders have been demonized as the new Hitler over my lifetime. Pretty much anyone that the US / UK disagree with.

  3. John R Moffett

    The Corporate Owned News has a vested interest in making the Red and Blue team voters hate each other. As long as workers are at each other’s throats they are not paying attention to the wizard behind the curtain (the oligarchs). The manufacturing of hate is big business. If there is one slogan I would love to catch on, it is:

    “Workers unite, Left and Right”

    Even if Red and Blue Team voters don’t have lots of things in common, they have a lot more in common with each other than either does to the overlords.

  4. The Rev Kev

    An advantage here in Oz is that the political campaigning is only allowed for the several weeks before the actual election after the Prime Minister calls one and it has to be at least 33 days. So we don’t have the year long political circus that you get in the US to rile people up. And people aren’t really that married to their political parties here as most voters realize that the actual politicians are mostly d***heads. So when the Coalition party started dumping women from positions of power, most women voters dumped the Coalition (Scotty’s party) and they lost power several months ago. We just had an important by-election the other day and the Coalition got trounced again to some people’s surprise. Seems that attacking the Chinese sounds like a good idea – until you realize the sheer number of Chinese-Australian voters who will abandon you. So political Parties are finding that they cannot take any support for granted.

  5. funemployed

    Being able to understand that others have perspectives that are as valid to them as yours are to you, and to desire to understand those perspective is where democracy comes from.

    Authoritarianism hinges on the broad social belief that there is one right perspective on literally everything that matters, and adherence to right perspectives is the determinant of social worth.

    This article sidesteps the fact that virtually every major institution in our society rewards an authoritarian mindset, and outside of a few practically necessary processes, punishes a democratic one.

    1. KD

      Authoritarianism hinges on the broad social belief that there is one right perspective on literally everything that matters, and adherence to right perspectives is the determinant of social worth.

      According to Wikipedia:

      Authoritarianism is a political system characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.

      Its just what happens when you get an entrenched set of elites in charge of all the social institutions.

      That being said, Truth is One. Chemical A is a carcinogen or its not, not a lot of room for pluralism here. Political decisions often involve the allocations of resources, and obviously, many people can have different preferences for guns or butter. Choices of political enemies or adversaries are arbitrary, and dictated by your location in a particular interest group, that either benefits, is harmed, or is neutral if say, the Congress goes after the IRS. At the same time, considerations of strategy may apply here (Hey Joe McCarthy, maybe you shouldn’t go after Eisenhower’s Army.) and in this sense, there is an objective dimension of political conflict, that is, objective consequences, even if the choice of target is ultimately arbitrary.

  6. britzklieg

    “There are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings… and I hate people like that!”

    National Brotherhood Week – Tom Lehrer

    Oh, the white folks hate the black folks
    And the black folks hate the white folks
    To hate all but the right folks
    Is an old established rule

    But during National Brotherhood Week,
    National Brotherhood Week
    Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek
    [a later version is “Cassius Clay and Mrs. Wallace”]
    It’s fun to eulogize the people you despise
    As long you don’t let them in your school

    Oh, the poor folks, hate the rich folks
    And the rich folks hate the poor folks
    All of my folks hate all of your folks
    It’s American as apple pie

    But during National Brotherhood Week,
    National Brotherhood Week
    New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans cause it’s very chic
    Stand up and shake the hand of
    someone you can’t stand
    You can tolerate him if you try

    Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
    And the Catholics hate the Protestants
    And the Hindus hate the Muslims
    And everybody hates the Jews

    But during National Brotherhood Week,
    National Brotherhood Week
    It’s National Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-hood Week
    Be nice to people who are inferior to you
    It’s only for a week so have no fear
    Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year

  7. Cassandra

    In the US and Britain, and no doubt in other ostensible democracies, the political system has wholeheartedly embraced the demonization of opponents. It is necessary to paint one’s opponent as ultimate, irredeemable evil in order to extort votes for one’s own unpopular “lesser evil” candidate. Given the amount of money at stake, it seems unlikely that this psychological warfare will see a ceasefire any time soon. And if it leads to social breakdown, that fits right in with the depopulation agenda (see rule 2).

  8. Ranger Rick

    I find that the most frequent cause of this is an over-reliance on reductio ad absurdum. It’s common across the political spectrum. An important part of making such an argument is in showing the work undertaken to get there, but, as is often the case, the conclusion is often taken as fact with no connection to the original statement being argued against. At worst you’re getting nonsense that someone heard in a soundbyte or read in an article about the topic, and at that point it’s a slogan and not an argument.

    1. t

      Honestly, it seems a lot of folks don’t even care to know and don’t really have anything at stake other than posturing and team spirit.

      Which is why people with whom on disagrees often go beast mode when you ask for context or, really, any thought at all.

      1. digi_owl

        It comes down to exhaustion and stress.

        Under those conditions the mind goes into a fight or flight mode as it is too drained to perform logical assessments of the world. Much easier to go with the team/clan/whatever.

  9. Rubicon

    Here’s The Bottom Line:

    “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
    Quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard and other wits.

    And now it has reverted back to Barbarism. In this case “Financial Barbarism.”
    Think about that for a moment: go visit the Civilizations of Western Europe. Great Britain, India, China, Russia…………the list is long.

  10. Camelotkidd

    Rereading Jacob Siegel’s A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century, I came across this nugget—“The fight against ISIS morphed into the fight against Trump and “Russian collusion,” which morphed into the fight against disinformation. But those were just branding changes; the underlying technological infrastructure and ruling-class philosophy, which claimed the right to remake the world based on a religious sense of expertise, remained unchanged. The human art of politics, which would have required real negotiation and compromise with Trump supporters, was abandoned in favor of a specious science of top-down social engineering that aimed to produce a totally administered society.

    For the American ruling class, COIN replaced politics as the proper means of dealing with the natives.”

  11. TonW

    My personal reaction to polarization is to simply avoid discussing any number of topics with friends and relatives who have intense opposing opinions. No one wants to hear much more about my opinion regarding the Ukraine war. And why bother. Every US War since Vietnam started with popular support and ended in tears. After the disillusioning outcomes were known.
    On a superficial level, ‘hate’ may be on the rise. Or ‘affective polarization’. But the term has itself been weaponized. I feel like people might have less interest in process than outcomes. A Prime example being freedom of speech. But maybe I’m just old.

    1. Cat Burglar

      One way to avoid your problem is to talk about the other issues, the issues that are important, but carefully left out of media discourse. Reading a lot of news and analysis can give you not only a better command of the subjects, but more raw material for jokes to liven up political conversations, and make you someone people want to talk about politics with. You want them to come away from a conversation probably not convinced you are right, but at least feeling that they can see something in a new way, thinking about things, and perhaps laughing.

      If there is ever going to be popular power that can move society in a positive direction, it will only happen with recruiting more people to the left ( I mean really the left, not the pseudo left of the Democrats). Walking by the local K-Mart (which closed as a result of the Sears scam) with a friend that deplored the idea that he might ever shop in such a morally repugnant place, I told him, “Look, if we ever go to the barricades, we’re going there with other K-Mart shoppers!” We do not have a choice except to persuade people.

  12. Tim

    My eyes glaze over with an article like this, not because it’s wrong, but because common sense, knowledge and critical thinking are no match for cognitive biases and algorithmic siloing of the population into 2 distinct echo chambers across on-demand media and social media.

  13. Sean gorman

    Re : “left and right unite” misses that left workers go after the bosses’ money and power, right workers go after poor peoples character.

  14. Susan the other

    It’s like a good sewer system. A constitution. No pun intended. Our Bill of Rights was a timely amendment. Legislation redefines civilization as required. And good legislation (a little concept mostly missing in the indispensable ego of the US) is the best maintenance. There should always be things we can agree on no matter how paranoid we get. Essentials. Maintaining good political essentials is like maintaining good health. And we do not do that. If we are going to be a federation of quasi independent states then we need national legislation requiring admission standards. Meet the standards of modern humanity and the rights of nature? If so, then your state can join the federation. Congratulations – you can now wave the flag. And it’s still a free country. You can go out and be as insulting and stupid as you want as long as you do no harm. It’s when windbaggery becomes policy that we get in trouble.

  15. JS

    There was a brief time when i thought the Tea Party activists from the right, and the Occupy Wall St activists from the left, were going to figure out they had common enemies. Soon thereafter it seemed the Occupy Wall St group got co opted/disjointed.

  16. some guy

    Why doesn’t the author think that Taylor-Greene is simply speaking in bad faith? That she knows she is lying when she pretends to believe that ” Democrats are pedophiles”?

    Some people really do illustrate the wisdom of the old saying . . . When you make yourself hateful, you get yourself hated.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, there actually is a cohort of conservatives who do believe that there are substantial pedophile rings run by Democrats. For instance, “Pizzagate” where they are convinced that the discussion by John Podesta and others in the DNC e-mails released by Wikileaks of food recipes were actually coded pedo talk. Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to prominent Democratic party figures, starting with Bill Clinton, would make this idea seem not totally crazy.

      1. some guy

        Hmmm . . . well, if it came to her through that pathway, then she may indeed believe it. But if she is applying that to every little local Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane Democrat who runs for Drain Commissioner or City Council or etc., should I still give her the benefit of the doubt as to her believing it to that level?

        I wonder what Trump knows about Clinton’s activities on Epstein Island. If Trump is indeed tried and then is indeed convicted of one or more of the charges, and the Judge gets to the part where he/she says . . . ” do you have anything to say to the Court before Sentence is pronounced? ” . . . I hope he takes that opportunity to go ” little black audio book” and tell the Court everything he knows about Clinton on Epstein Island, just to get it said in Court. ( If indeed there is anything to be known about Clinton on Epstein Island).

      2. Spoiler alert

        I used to think the pedo-conspiracy was just crazy talk.

        Then the truth about the Catholic church started coming out.
        OK, but being celibate is kind of unnatural and the priesthood is good at keeping secrets.

        Then the Michael Jackson stories started coming out. OK that’s just one crazy guy. But it’s not just one guy, he had an army of lawyers and accountants, not to mention agents and other hangers on who enabled him. A friend whose father was a Sherriff’s deputy said they would come to investigate and the limo with the lawyers would be driving away. Parents had nothing to say.

        Then the news about Jimmi Saville broke. He was the Top of The Pops presenter, who worked for the BBC, who sponsored orphanages then abused the kids there. Other TV people in his orbit were implicated. Some of the kids said their was a powerful pedo ring, with Lords involved. I thought that was crazy.

        Then Prince Andrew was implicated in the Epstein ring. You think he travels without security? You think they hid it from the Queen?

        But the real kicker is the fact that not one single client of Epstein, no one in his supposedly voluminous blackmail tapes, no one on his plane trips to Pleasure Island, has been prosecuted.

        No one has been held responsible for his murder.

        But yeah, I’m the conspiracy theorist.

        And for the record, we all know that it’s the Uniparty pulling the strings. The difference is grassroots MAGA is vehemently against sexualizing children and mainstream Democrats are being bullied and tricked into supporting ‘limited’ versions of it.

        1. some guy

          Well, you know what they say about Konspirisi Theeree ( ree speld tu avoyd trippping deetekturz) . . . . ” Its not a theeree if it happened”.

          At his blog Rigorous Intuition 2.0, Jeff Wells wrote a lot about Upper Class depravity rings of all kinds. The relevant posts are scattered among several categories, especially ” Deep Politics ” ,
          ” The Military-Occult Complex, ritual abuse/mind control, and “High Weirdness” , and
          lesserly ” Fascism”. But there are a few in other categories too.

          Here is a hard-to-find link to the complete version of the blog.

          ( Parenthetically, a more recent post is discussing the GOP’s grand plan to relegalize Child Labor. Should I believe such Child Labor re-legalization seekers are any less evil and hateful than I believe them to be? Would the author of this post want me to ” understand their concerns and their point of view”?)

        2. Jorge

          The Q stuff is a refraction of reality, rearranged in the most optimal way to suck people in.

    2. James

      some guy,

      I think MTG totally believes that “Democrats are pedophiles” in the same way that so many dems totally believe “Republicans are white supremacists”.

      Franz de Waal talks about how, in times of stress, chimpanzees will choose a member of their troop to scapegoat. I fear that this tendency to find someone to vilify is coded deep in our biology.

      1. some guy

        In that case, if someone were to interview her on a TV-radio show of national reach, they should respectfully ask her for names of particular Pedophile Democrats and evidence of their pedophilia, and see if she can supply those actual names. ” Democrats are” . . . is not specific enough.

        A skilled interviewer would ooze empathy and respect while leading her down the Primrose Path of Serial Specificity-by-name in her charges.

  17. Nicholas L

    I submit that a series of major false premises are presented here, so obviously false that they don’t demand a detailed deconstruction:

    – That there is an easily defined bipolar divide of nearly the whole US population (or at least the politically aware and active).

    – That the correct descriptors for the two supposedly polarized sides are left/liberal/Democrat and right/conservative/Republican, that these are somehow coherent and fixed categories, and that these sides can be defined programmatically and simply by a yes-no checklist of single issues that (in this writing) fail to include anything economic or outside of the US. We’re all on one side or the other of the major ideological divide; reality is a matter of what ideas we hold.

    – That emotional hatred based in exaggerated stereotyping of the “other side” is the most important force dividing the giant American “us” that otherwise shares a common interest.

    – That the posited divide is close to a physical civil war, as indicated in this essay by a single statement quoted from a particularly blowhard politician.

    – That the best and most urgent response is to reform media and public discourse by applying a form of social-psychology practice from above, conducted by technocrats pursuing careers in the present discipline of behavioral psychology (such as this guy).

    As scholarship this is trash. It’s tedious, and written and voiced like a weepy editorial on NPR, but I can’t say I “hate” it. For me it conjures an image of a man in a white coat, operating on a grant he hopes to renew, trying to calm down the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.

  18. Anne S

    “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

  19. Grayce

    Where you intuitively say “bi-partisan” and mean a good thing, substitute “non-partisan” and see if the same sentence takes on new meaning.

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