The Pathway to Civility: Making Perceptions Match Reality

How polarized is America? New research suggests Americans may be way less polarized than they think. A recent presentation by Samantha Moore-Berg, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, on suggests the pathway to civility is obtaining a better understanding of those one disagrees with.

Moore-Berg’s study addresses “Meta-Perception as an Avenue for Division but also for Intergroup Reconciliation.” She defines meta-perceptions as “what you think another group thinks about you.” She conducted two studies examining what Republicans and Democrats think of each other versus what they think members of the other party think of them. Moore-Berg determined there was a huge mismatch between actual perceptions and what they thought the other group thought about them.

  • While both Republicans and Democrats rated members of their own party as more civilized and evolved than members of the other party by a margin of 22 points, this was far from the 55 to 59-point difference they assumed.
  • Both Democrats and Republicans thought members of the other party were more prejudiced against them (had colder feelings) than they actually were, assuming they were warmer toward members of their own party by a margin of 66 to 71 points, while the difference was actually about 25 points smaller.

These differences are huge! Members of both parties thought the other side was twice as set against them as they actually were. The result has been that American citizens are avoiding members of the other party and doing everything possible to keep the other party from being able to win or govern.

Two additional studies by Moore-Berg determined that pleasant contact with members of an opposing group correlated with improved humanization of the other group. These studies suggest one reason America is so polarized is that disagreeing citizens do not have enough pleasant interactions with one another. Programs that expose one to other viewpoints and others holding those viewpoints are likely to help decrease polarization and increase civility.

The following initiatives work to achieve that objective:

  • Braver Angels brings together Americans with differing viewpoints for debates, workshops and other events to show them how to disagree respectfully and perhaps find common ground.
  • Open Mind builds scalable, evidence-based tools to equip people with the habits of heart and mind to engage in more constructive and empathetic dialogue across differing backgrounds, beliefs and values.
  • Sphere Summit provides professional development for grades 5–12 educators and administrators on how to facilitate discussion of public policy issues in the classroom.

Additional resources:

Mentioned on this page

Get Connected With the True Diversity Newsletter

Each month, you’ll get the latest resources and analysis from True Diversity, delivered right to your inbox. Sign up below.

"*" indicates required fields

First Name
Last Name
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.