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What's pulling America apart?
01:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Daniel Yudkin is associate director of research at the nonpartisan organization More in Common and a postdoctoral fellow at the Behavioral Science Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

We live at a time when many Americans will happily proclaim, pronounce and prognosticate endlessly about politics. But despite the confidence of pundits, politicians and social media personalities, there’s a startling blind spot in their understanding: what the other side actually believes.

This finding emerges from new research, based on a survey involving a representative sample of 2,100 American adults, which was conducted by the nonpartisan organization More in Common, where I am the associate director of research.

Daniel Yudkin

Participants in the survey first stated whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements concerning issues affecting Americans – from climate change (i.e., “People are right to be worried about how climate change might affect us”) to gun control (i.e. “The government should do more to stop guns getting in the hands of bad people”).

Then we asked participants to guess what percentage of their political opponents agreed or disagreed with similar statements. This allowed us to compare belief to reality when it comes to Americans’ understanding of each other.

The results were surprising.

Overall, Americans dramatically overestimate the extremity of their opponents’ views. Both Democrats and Republicans overestimate the proportion of their political opponents holding immoderate views by about 20 percentage points or more. Independents, on average, misjudge Democrats’ and Republicans’ views by about 16 percentage points.

For example, the proportion of Democrats who agree that “most police are bad people” (15%) is less than a third of what Republicans suspect (52%). Similarly, the proportion of Republicans who deny that “racism exists” (21%) is less than half what Democrats estimate (49%).

We call this the “perception gap” in American politics – the yawning chasm between Americans’ suspicions and reality.

Take the Perception Gap quiz - (You may think you know what someone from another political party believes. But do you really? Take this quiz to find out.)

I myself encountered a vivid illustration of the perception gap when, having grown up in liberal New England, I visited my extended family in Kansas for the first time in my mid-20s. The kind and thoughtful people I met were a far cry from the backward farmers they had so often been painted as by friends and media.

But our research revealed still more interesting facts about the perception gap in American politics.

Consider the following question: What is the term length of a US senator?

We found that, ironically, the perception gap of people who answered this question correctly (six years) is 20% higher than those who don’t. In other words, the more people know about the political system, the worse they may be at guessing what their opponents actually believe.

Similarly, people who regularly post political content on social media counterintuitively have a 50% wider perception gap than those who don’t. The perception gap is also wider among people who consume various types of media. For example, people who follow the news “most of the time” are almost three times less accurate than those who do so “only now and then.”

Why do the most politically knowledgeable people have the widest perception gap? One possible reason is the spurious effects of social media. Because the internet amplifies the most extreme voices, it is easy to assume those voices stand for the majority. But, in fact, according to our research, they represent only a tiny fraction of the American electorate.

Another reason for this gap may be that, increasingly, people are sorting themselves into demographically isolated pockets where they rarely if ever are forced to confront those with whom they disagree. This leads people to stereotype their opponents as evil or ignorant without having to consider the unique set of values that led them to their beliefs.

Indeed, our data show, for example, that people with the most politically homogenous friend groups are those on the political extremes.

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    Far from conforming to the caricatures their counterparts subject them to, the vast majority of Americans are flexible in their views, open to compromise and eager to see politicians make progress on important shared issues, such as addressing economic inequality and enacting commonsense gun reform.

    We call this group the “exhausted majority.”

    Members of the group are not as often heard from in the political conversation because they don’t succumb to the black-and-white thinking that drives their more extreme counterparts. But in some ways, they appear to have a better understanding of the political landscape and will likely form a critical part of the coalition of any winning political movement in the years to come.