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Divided We Stand

Our motivation to create shared reality rips us apart but could also reunite us.

By Sandra C. Matz and Maya Rossignac-Milon

Nina Lishuk Shutterstock
Source: Nina Lishuk Shutterstock

What could be better than a contested Presidential election for spicing up conversation during your annual Thanksgiving dinner? Dueling with uncle Vernon over impeachment hearings and Supreme Court nominations was not exactly fun, but how much worse is this year going to be?

Today, Americans are more politically polarized than ever before, and the 2020 presidential election is just the latest splash of gasoline poured into an already ravening fire. Over the past few decades, the healthy competition of ideas between parties, the foundation of democracy, has turned into pure political tribalism. Yes, we might disagree on some political values and how to approach some of the pressing issues of our time such as climate change, gun control, or immigration. But these differences in political values are far less pronounced than the partisan gap we experience today.

We no longer quibble with people on the other side about political ideals or specific policy goals. We demonize them. Our hate for people on the other side now exceeds our love for our own side1. In 2017, 44 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable opinion of the GOP, and 45 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners view the Democratic Party unfavorably. You can imagine that today, these numbers are likely even higher. Back in 1994, less than 20 percent in both parties held extreme negative views of the other side2.

We have stopped engaging in a constructive dialogue with one another. Frankly, in any type of dialogue. Fewer and fewer Americans say they would be willing to date or marry someone from the opposing party, and families are fracturing over political disagreements. We don’t want to engage with the other side. We mostly want the other side gone, and to retreat into our comfortable bubble of like-minded others. This growing segregation between us and them also means that what we “know” about the other side becomes increasingly biased and inaccurate. In the absence of real conversations and interactions, we create our own image of the other side. For example, Republicans estimate that about 32 percent of Democrats are LGBT, and Democrats believe that about 38 percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year. In reality, those numbers are 6 percent and 2 percent3.

This increasingly bitter tribalism is eroding the fabric of our society. For the first time in history, the International Crisis Group which monitors violence around the globe has put the US on the watch list for potential violence in the aftermath of the Presidential election. Other countries frequently make on this list include Ukraine, Egypt, Sudan.

How did we get here?

As social scientists, we seek to understand and explain the growing political divide, in part, because understanding a phenomenon is often the only way of changing its natural course. There are many factors at play here: growing inequalities, the sorting of political parties according to socio-demographic lines, globalization, and a changing media landscape to name just a few. However, we believe that the political divide we observe today is fundamentally driven by the innate human motivation to create shared reality. What is shared reality? How is it related to political polarization?

According to the American psychologist, Tory Higgins, the motivation to create shared reality is what makes us human. It is the motivation to share our feelings, thoughts, and concerns. No other species exhibits this motivation. Yet, infants as young as 6 months of age attempt to create shared reality. If you are a parent, you know this. And you probably love it. It is the moment when your toddler spots a strangely shaped leaf and excitedly signals for you to look over. You follow her gaze, you smile, and together you create a sense of shared reality. This innate human motivation for shared reality strengthens our social bonds and played a critical role in the evolution of cooperation. It allows us to see the world in the same way, to create common ground, and to establish certainty about the ever-changing environment around us. In a nutshell, when we create shared realities with others, we co-create our sense of what is true about the world.4

However, our motivation for shared reality can also rip us apart. As we create a collective truth about the world with other members of our own tribe, we become increasingly suspicious and distrusting of members of other tribes. The other side does not simply hold beliefs that are different from ours. They hold false beliefs. We are right about the world, and they are wrong. The same innate motivation that leads us to bond with members of our in-group, leads to hatred and conflicts with the out-group4,5.

The growing political divide is threatening our sense of shared reality, and with it the welfare of our society as well as the individuals within it. While we create truths about the world within our own political party, disagreements with family and friends may contribute to a growing uncertainty of what is real, what to believe in, and where to go from here—which is not only tearing society apart but also threatening the mental health, well-being, and family bonds of more than 328 million Americans.

Our own research on shared reality around the 2020 Presidential election shows that individuals on both sides of the political spectrum report high levels of shared reality with their close friends and significant others. This is not surprising when considering that they also indicate that the vast majority of their friends hold the same political beliefs as they do.

At the same time, however, individuals reported disconcertingly low levels of shared reality with their nuclear and extended family, their local community, and their fellow US citizens more broadly. The average level of shared reality was, on a scale ranging from 1 (= no shared reality) to 7 (= high shared reality), a mere 3.3 with their local communities and 3.4 with their fellow US citizens (compared to 5.6 with friends and 4.5 with family).

These low levels of shared reality have serious implications for our social relationships and our trust in society at large. Our data showed that they go hand-in-hand with low levels of epistemic trust (i.e. the extent to which we consider information provided by others as trustworthy) a lack of the feeling connected to others, and a decrease in respect for the other side. Data we collected in collaboration with the MindDoc app shows that a lack of shared reality is related to lower levels of positive affect and an increased risk of developing depression. It is difficult to remain positive when we feel that our sense of what is real and true is threatened and that the other side is trying to erode and destroy what we hold self-evident and dear.

Why do we see this surge in political polarization now?

The rapidly changing media landscape and the rise of social media platforms have exacerbated the negative sides of shared reality. Our desire to create shared realities with members of our in-group has always created filter bubbles. But the ones we observe today are filter bubbles on steroids. They are a lethal mix of our desire to stay inside our cozy and comfortable zone of agreement, and new technologies implemented by big tech companies to capture and sell our attention. We do not want to know how the other side feels about the world. And the tech giants make it easier for us than ever.

Recommendation algorithms and targeted advertising have created political echo chambers in which we only talk to ourselves. Unlike in previous times, you can find a like-minded person to reinforce pretty much every belief or worldview you could hold. And you can co-create your truth about the world out of sight from everybody else. The same is true for political propaganda. Propaganda has always existed and will likely continue to exist. What has changed, however, is that it has become largely invisible to members outside of one’s tribe. The newsfeed of a young, black, liberal woman in New York, for example, is likely to look completely different than that of a middle-aged, white, conservative man in Ohio. It is like we are all standing in a dark alley with Mark Zuckerberg who is selectively feeding us information from the highest bidder. Nobody knows what we are being fed, or what everybody else is being fed either.

The consequence of these bubbles is that we are all too often hit with unpleasant realities that we did not see coming. For Democrats, this was the 2016 presidential election. Very few had considered it a real possibility that Donald Trump would emerge as the next president of the United States. They did not see the blow coming. Why? Because they had no access to the lives and views of many Americans. Our egocentric view of the world often leads us to assume that our truth is also everybody else’s truth. Because we believe that they see what we see. Except that they don’t. They see whatever their bubble makes them see. And if we do not actively try to enter each other’s bubbles, we remain blind.

What can we do to get out?

As we have discussed before, our motivation to create shared reality brings out both the best and worst in us. This “two-sides-of-the-same-coin” narrative of shared reality makes the concept especially compelling when addressing the political divide: It provides both an explanation of and a solution to the problem. How do we create shared reality across the political aisle?

As a first step, we need to regain our ability to see what the other side is seeing. Technology companies need to offer a possibility for us to step out of our own bubble and into those of people who are different than us. Those companies need to provide us with the chance to take a look at the reality of someone else. How would your Facebook newsfeed change if you were a 13-year-old black girl in Chicago? What would Google bring up in response to your search for “Joe Biden” if you were a 50-year-old working-class Republican in Phoenix? Adding a simple option that allows users to view their newsfeed or search results from the viewpoint of a particular type of person would make the invisible visible again.

Swapping phones with family members from the opposite side and scrolling through each other’s newsfeed could also be an effective way for people to “see” each other’s realities. This swapping could become an important shared practice in your family. Prior research has shown that creating “shared practices”—traditions you engage in together as a family—is an important part of shared reality. It could also reinforce the shared identity of being a family that exposes each other to the ideas and information from the other side—even if you disagree about the content.

For us to truly consider new information as part of our reality, we need to have genuine conversations with each other, and we need to find a way of personally connecting with members of the opposing tribe. One way of doing this is to interact with people and to create shared reality in an uncontested domain before moving on to more difficult political conversations. Do you both cheer for the same sports team? Do you both miss your grandmother’s pumpkin pie? Do you both love the TV series “Great British Bake Off”? Uncovering similarities helps humanize the other side. The other person is no longer just a member of the other tribe. It is Jane. It is Adam. It is Malia. And writing off Jane, Adam, or Malia as dangerous or crazy is much harder than writing off an anonymous Republican or Democrat.

Yes, Thanksgiving might turn into a political quarrel with Uncle Vernon and other family members. But instead of sharpening your knives or burying your heads in the turkey stuffing, we encourage you to first take the time to reinforce the shared reality you have about your family culture—reminisce together about shared memories, acknowledge your shared interests and values—and turn to politics once you’ve established that base. Approach the political discussion as an opportunity to learn more about each other’s political beliefs with an open heart and mind. Maybe swap phones and scroll through each other’s newsfeed to understand where you are each coming from.

How do you deviate in your perception and interpretation of the current political reality? Why do you hold these beliefs? Do you share political goals even if you might disagree on the specific solutions for how to achieve them? And if you find yourself reaching an impasse—can you agree that you value debate and the exchange of ideas as a family? Shared reality with members of other “tribes” takes time to create. But if we want to heal the wounds that the current political divide has torn into the very foundation of our society, we need to start somewhere.