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New Research Shows People Are Not As Divided Along Political Lines As They Think


It's no secret that America is deeply divided along political lines. But a new report shows that maybe we aren't as divided as we think we are. The nonprofit Beyond Conflict teamed up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to study how our brains react to polarization. NPR's Hannah Allam has more.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: When Samantha Moore-Berg tries to explain her research on polarization to friends and family, it goes like this.

SAMANTHA MOORE-BERG: I usually mention that I study peace and conflict, so I take a multinational approach where I look at divisions and what divides people...

ALLAM: They might not get all the technical stuff, but Moore-Berg says they get the urgency.

MOORE-BERG: They think it's very noble (laughter). They say we need more people who study these type of things.

ALLAM: Moore-Berg is part of a team using brain and behavioral science to measure just how deep the country's divisions run. It's a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based group that tracks polarization. They just released findings that show both Democrats and Republicans hold greatly exaggerated ideas about how much they're disliked by the other side.

MOORE-BERG: Yes, there is this difference in perspective, but it's not nearly as bad as we think it is.

ALLAM: The study found that Americans believe members of the other party dehumanize, dislike and disagree with their party about twice as much as they actually do. Respondents also had inflated ideas about how far apart they are on gun control, immigration and coronavirus responses. Moore-Berg says the misperceptions trigger reactions in the brain that only harden the idea of us vs. them. The danger, she says, is when the divide becomes more about identity than issues.

MOORE-BERG: There will be different perspectives, and these different perspectives are good. That's what makes for a healthy democracy.

ALLAM: Hannah Allam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.