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Do Conservatives and Liberals Perceive Different Realities?

How political affiliation colors the way we see the world

Source: cinema-1929338_12Pixabay

Anyone who has been on a road trip knows you need two things to plan a journey. You need to know your starting point and your destination.

Politics is very much like a road trip. We have our starting point—the world as it is now—and our destination point—the world how we would like it to be. Now it’s certainly not new to suggest that political parties disagree on the destination point. Red Brain conservatives and Blue Brain liberals have wildly different visions of what they want the world to be, which is of course why they have different political preferences. Someone who wants an America built on free trade will prefer different economic policies than someone who wants economic isolation. Someone whose focus is on security and safety will prefer different immigration policies and military budgets than someone whose focus is on equality and diversity.

But remember, the destination is only half of the equation. Just as important is the starting point. Here is where far less attention has been given, both in terms of the media and scientific investigations. It’s generally assumed that conservatives and liberals agree on where America is—all they have to do is just look at the world around them to gain an accurate assessment. So conflict is assumed to occur solely because the two parties can’t agree on which direction they want the country to go.

But here’s the problem—this assumption is wrong.

Sure, it’s easy for us to see how political parties disagree on the destination, because policy preferences are based on opinion. But the starting point is based in fact, right? So shouldn’t we at least agree on it?

Turns out, there is evidence of partisanship here too. In one study, conservatives, liberals and moderates were all asked to “set aside their preferences” and indicate the “most accurate description of the political system” currently in place. Then they were given five political topics to rate on a 1-10 scale:

  • Topic 1: Are current policies guided by preserving traditional values (1) or tolerating new lifestyles (10)
  • Topic 2: Do current policies protect against external threats (1) or do not stress protection and security (10)
  • Topic 3: Do current policies strictly punish rule-breakers (1) or display compassion for rule-breakers (10)
  • Topic 4: Do current policies benefit the rich (1) or the poor (10)
  • Topic 5: Is government only minimally involved in society (1) or involved in every facet of society (10)

So what did the study find?

In each case, liberals and conservatives failed to see eye to eye on their perceptions of current policies. Liberals consistently perceived current policies as titling more toward conservative values, whereas conservatives perceived current policies as tilting more toward liberal values (with each topic showing a statistically significant difference).

This difference in perceptions was especially evident for Topic 4. Liberals perceived the current political landscape as heavily favoring the rich. Conservatives instead saw it more favorable toward the poor.

Political differences in perceptions have also been found on simple facts regarding the number of Iraq War casualties during the Bush administration, the size of the national deficit during the Clinton administration, or state of the current economy. And before you start thinking these perceptual differences only occur for people who are uninformed, think again. Research by Danielle Shani shows that the more conservatives and liberals are politically knowledgeable, the bigger the gap in their perceptions of reality. As paradoxical as this seems, it suggests that the more knowledge people have, the more they use that knowledge to bias their perceptions in a way that fits with their preferences.

To put all of this into context, let’s go back to the road trip example. Imagine you have two people who are both planning a visit to the Grand Canyon. The first person is complaining about how expensive it’s going to be and how many stops they will have to make along the way. The second person vehemently disagrees, stating the trip will be easy and inexpensive. After arguing until they’re blue (or red) in the face, they realize why they can’t see eye to eye. Person one is starting their road trip in Birmingham, Alabama. Person two is coming from Los Angeles. So even though their destination is the same, the realities of the trip are quite different because they are coming from different starting points.

The same is true of politics. When Red Brains and Blue Brains look out their windshield as they’re driving down the highway, they see a very different American landscape. Just do a quick channel flip between MSNBC and Fox News and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

The take-home message is this. Political conflict doesn’t just result from differing preferences for future policies. It also results from differing perceptions of current policies. If our parties want to start working together again, perhaps we should focus less on our destination and focus more on coming to an agreement about where we are starting from. Because as the popular proverb suggests, “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”

To learn more about the psychology of politics, check out my “Red Brain, Blue Brain” blog at

More from Melissa Burkley Ph.D.
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