The Perception Gap is the third study in More in Common’s Hidden Tribes of America Project. This year-long project was launched by More in Common in late 2018 to better understand the forces that drive political polarization and tribalism in the United States today, and to galvanize efforts to address them.
The Hidden Tribes project involves three streams:
More in Common works on strengthening societies against the increasing threats of polarization and social division. We aim to build more united, inclusive and resilient societies in which people believe that what they have in common is greater than what divides them.
We work in partnership with a wide range of civil society groups, as well as philanthropy, business, faith, education, media and government to connect people across the lines of division. Our work includes research into public attitudes, communications initiatives that resonate with a majority who are currently being targeted by populist narratives, and projects that bring people together in ways that counter the forces of fracturing and fragmentation.
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Daniel Yudkin is the Associate Director of Research at More in Common and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Social and Behavioral Science Initiative (SBSI) at the University of Pennsylvania.. His research focuses on how people assess and influence their surroundings, including how they decide between right and wrong, compare themselves to others, and explore new spaces. He received his PhD in social psychology at New York University, was a Fellow at Harvard University, and has been a contributing writer to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Scientific American. Daniel is interested in using insights from behavioral science to understand and improve human interaction and society.
Stephen Hawkins is the Director of Research for More in Common. Since 2016, Stephen has led More in Common’s studies on polarization and division in the United States and across Europe. With a training in polling and public opinion research, he has advised partners and clients on five continents. His clients have included political candidates and movements, Fortune 100 companies such as Ford and Microsoft, and United Nations agencies. He received his Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Stephen is fascinated by beliefs and ideology, and enjoys impersonating former US Presidents.
Tim Dixon is a social movement builder who was born in Australia, worked for several years in New York and is now based in London, where he co-founded Purpose Europe. He trained as an economist and tech sector lawyer, built a leading Australian educational publishing business that was bought by Pearson in 2004 and worked as chief speechwriter and economic adviser for two Prime Ministers. He has helped start and grow social movement organizations around the world to protect civilians in Syria, engage citizens in the peace process in Colombia, address modern day slavery, promote gun control in the US, reduce inequality, and engage faith communities in social justice. He is on the boards of the International Budget Partnership, the Jo Cox Foundation, Purpose Europe, the Syria Campaign, the Chifley Research Centre and faith-based justice organization Sojourners.
First, as individuals we should stop participating in the polarization ecosystem. This means broadening the scope of sources from which we get our news, challenging those who try to paint all members of either political party as evil or extreme, and having conversations with people with different views. Second, we need to raise awareness about deliberate efforts in our society to foster division. This includes political actors who benefit from a divided, rather than united society, and media sources that manipulate and fabricate content with the sole aim of generating outrage. Finally, we need to reform the incentive structures in our society that cause media and political actors to amplify divisive content.
If we tested different statements, we would probably find different Perception Gaps - the exact size would depend on the nature of the questions asked. The important finding here is less the exact magnitude of the Perception Gap and more that the specific factors associated with larger Perception Gaps: i.e., heavy news consumption, highly partisan personal views, and ideologically homogeneous friend networks.
We designated views as 'extreme' on the basis that it is how one partisan side would characterize them. We used data from the Hidden Tribes project and external sources (shown on page 56 of the report) to support the assumption that a particular view would be characterized as 'extreme' by members of the other political party. For instance, our Hidden Tribes study found that 95% of Democrats say that problems of racism in the US are at least somewhat serious. Therefore, from the perspective of Democrats, to disagree that “racism still exists in America” would be an ‘extreme’ view. Importantly, we do not make an overall assessment about the objective level of extreme views in America. Instead, our insight is that Democrat and Republicans mostly overestimate the percentage of their political opponents who disagree with them on key issues.
Through our research we seek first to ask, listen and learn. More in Common rejects any racist or hateful ideas expressed in the study - such as any support for the idea that “all Muslims are bad.” We are not saying there are no problems in America, no divisions, no disagreements. There are and they matter. Racism and other forms of discrimination exist and should not be denied. What we are saying is good news is that in reality Americans have much more similar views on issues such as the prevalence of racism and more similar attitudes more generally than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically-active.