Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Program Name/Specialization

Social Psychology


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Anne E. Wilson

Advisor Role

Professor, Social Psychology


American politics is becoming increasingly ideologically divided, and this cross-party hostility is reflected in pronounced partisan media outrage. However, while actual ideological polarization has indeed been rising, people estimate an ideological gap as being even larger than reality. We focus on whether part of this cross-party dislike can be explained by illusory perceptions of opposing party attitudes, attitudes the majority of the party members do not actually endorse. This illusory gap is referred to as false polarization; it is an interpersonal bias where a perceiver believes an opponent’s position is much farther away conceptually from where that opponent actually reports their position to be. Over three studies, we explore in which instances false polarization occurs, as well as the downstream consequences of falsely perceiving opposing party attitudes. In Study 1 (N = 1235), we established that liberals and conservatives are likely to over-estimate the prevalence of opposing party attitudes when the partisan issues they are presented with are extreme, rather than mild. Study 2 (N = 816) replicated these patterns, and also revealed that the perception of opponent party agreement with extreme issues correlated with cross-party dislike, and unwillingness to engage (starting political discussions, sharing taxis, etc.). Additionally, the amount of time participants spent watching partisan media (Fox News or MSNBC) positively correlated with the degree of agreement perceived with conservative and liberal issues, respectively. In Study 3 (N = 300), false polarization findings were again replicated, and we found that participants attributed much of their dislike of opposing party members to their perceived (but over-estimated) agreement on extreme issues. As these consequences of false polarization pertain to the desire to interact with opposing party members, they have the potential to undermine the motivation to work towards communication and compromise which are fundamental to the democratic process.

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