If we have strong political leanings, it’s likely that we’ll have similarly strong feelings about our opponents. We might think they’re misguided or stupid; we might consider them self-serving and selfish; or, worst of all, we may believe they’re actually evil.
A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores this question: do we think our opponents are evil or just stupid? While the common understanding is that liberals see conservatives as evil and conservatives see liberals as stupid, the team finds that whatever our political affiliation, we’re more likely to see each other as unintelligent than immoral.
In the first study, 481 American participants indicated where they would place themselves on a political scale running from very liberal to very conservative. They then thought about conservatives and liberals as a group, and indicated how many people in the group could be described using 12 different adjectives. Six of the adjectives were related to stupidity (e.g. illogical, unreasonable) and six to immorality (e.g. bad moral character, willing to harm others).
The results showed that, unsurprisingly, people were more likely to rate those with different political ideologies to their own as more unintelligent and more immoral than those with the same ideology. Ratings of unintelligence were also significantly higher than ratings of immorality, suggesting people see their opponents as stupid rather than evil. This was replicated in a second study, which took place after a midterm election in North Carolina.
In a third study, participants were instead asked to what extent they felt the average Democrat of Republican was stupid or evil, rating them on the same adjectives as in the previous studies. The framing of the question was therefore about identity rather than ideology. Again, participants rated members of their political ingroup as less stupid and less evil than members of their political outgroup. And again, participants rated political opponents as more stupid than evil.
The final study took a different tack, asking what people think Democrats and Republicans think of one another. Participants indicated how they believed their own ingroup sees the outgroup and vice versa, how their ingroup sees themselves, and how the outgroup sees themselves as well — regardless of their own perceptions. They then provided their own ratings of the in- and outgroup’s unintelligence and immorality.
Both Democrats and Republican participants believed — correctly — that Republicans would see Democrats as more stupid than evil, though they overestimated how negative their views would be. Democrats also accurately believed fellow Democrats would see Republicans as more unintelligent than immoral — but Republicans felt Democrats saw them as equally stupid and evil. Again, this group overestimated how negative Democrats saw them.
So, overall, the idea that liberals see conservatives as evil while conservatives see liberals as stupid did not bear out — participants of all political ideologies tended to see each other as stupid rather than evil.
The studies also found that we overestimate how negatively our political opponents view us. This misunderstanding, the team suggests, could provide a way of crossing divides or reducing conflict, offering some potential to reconcile with those with different ideologies by moving past assumptions.