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The big idea: do our political opponents really hate us?
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The big idea: do our political opponents really hate us?

Politics is a firestorm, sometimes literally. In 2023 in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, someone threw petrol on a pro-Trump sign nailed to a tree and set light to it. Three years earlier in the same area, a 49-year-old Trump supporter started a huge blaze after igniting some hay bales that were emblazoned with a pro-Biden sign. This bucolic area of Massachusetts is not known for arsonists, but both here and everywhere else in the world, it’s as though people are consumed by hate.

And it’s not just America where liberals and conservatives seem to detest each other. A UK survey in 2017 found that both Conservative and Labour supporters viewed the other side as much less intelligent, open-minded and honest than their own. Only 24% and 19%, respectively, would be happy with their child marrying someone from the other side of the ideological divide.

But is this hatred as intense as it looks? And is it, in fact, hatred, or something else entirely?

What is true is that our political opponents appear to hate us; our “metaperceptions” of them are very negative. Let me explain: perceptions are what you think of the other side, and metaperceptions are what you think the other side thinks about you. Crucially, research shows that our metaperceptions are extremely miscalibrated. In other words, we believe they hate us far more than they do. In one study, the assumed distaste was exaggerated by about 25 points on a 100-point scale. Another found that hatred was overestimated by up to 300%.

Here’s why that’s such a problem: we like those who seem to like us, and are inclined to hate those who seem to hate us, even if they don’t. This is the principle of reciprocity, and it’s also the reason people are willing to engage in anti-democratic practices. Evidence shows that the majority of people on the left and the right are in favour of transparent elections and against gerrymandering, for example, but reckon people on their side value these principles up to 88% more. This spells trouble, because when you believe your opponents are breaking the rules, you become willing to do so, too.

Thankfully, there’s a way to interrupt that cycle. When people have their inaccurate metaperceptions corrected, they show less partisan animosity. Likewise, reminding them that their opponents support democracy leads them to reaffirm their own commitment to democratic norms, and express less support for anti-democratic candidates.

Although it’s clear that we often overestimate the amount of political hatred in the world, it’s certainly the case that people on different sides often strongly dislike each other, and will sometimes lash out. The other question, then, is why?

One important reason is the setup of politics and elections, which are often a zero-sum game. When the system means your win is my loss, people are naturally going to get antagonistic. Of course, not all rivalry is bad. Athletes perform better when they compete against people or teams for whom they have animosity. But politics is not the same as sports. The whole purpose of sports is competition, and while elections are also competitive, we must all live together in the same society in the intervening years, governed by the same parties.

Another reason we dislike our political opponents is because we tend to think they are immoral. Together with colleagues, I asked liberals and conservatives what they believed each grouping thought about obvious wrongs. Surprisingly, we discovered that people believed 15% of their opponents viewed sexually exploiting children as acceptable. In reality, almost everyone condemns it.

It is also possible to see people on the other side as evil because they endorse policies that cause harm. In fact, all policies cause some harm, whether they concern tax, transport, immigration or drugs. Every law or initiative involves messy trade-offs: costs and benefits that help some and cause suffering to others. Unfortunately, research shows that people believe their political opponents intend these unwelcome costs and relish the problems they cause.

The key to understanding all this lies in our distant past. Though we often think of ourselves as apex predators, sitting at the top of the food chain, our ancestors lived in constant fear – more prey than predator. For the millions of years during which our minds evolved, we were stalked and hunted and terrorised by big cats, eagles and packs of wolves. And even though we now live in relative safety, we cannot shake that pervasive sense of threat.

With this knowledge about human nature, we can better understand why those people in rural Massachusetts set political signs on fire. They were not so much bent on mindless destruction as they were afraid, worried about their future and the future of the nation if the other side were to win. Of course, feeling afraid does not license violence or arson. It does not justify, but it can help explain.

An environment that made us less afraid would clearly help. Unfortunately, there are many political actors determined to take advantage of our evolved fearfulness, stoking our sense of threat to gain advantage for themselves. We must try to hold fast to reality: “they” don’t hate you as much as you think. They may be willing to cause harm – but mainly on the basis of reciprocity. They think that your side is the one that embraces chaos and destruction.

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The solution to this mutual misperception is to show each other that this is not the case, and explain how our political beliefs are grounded in feelings of fear and concern. Work we’ve carried out shows that people are more willing to respect and engage with opponents who relate personal experiences of suffering and worries about what might happen to them in the future.

So the next time you speak to someone who disagrees with you, spend less time accusing them of burning it all down and more time helping them to understand your beliefs as well as your fears – which, at root, are likely to be similar to theirs.

Kurt Gray is a professor in psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Further reading

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein (Profile, £10.99)

The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities for Personal and Collective Success by Jay Van Bavel, Dominic J Packer (Wildfire, £12.99)

How Civil Wars Starts: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F Walter (Penguin, £10.99).

Source: theguardian.com