Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine someone driving a BMW with a California vanity license plate that reads “SOCR♥MOM.” What associations come to your mind? Who is driving this car?
Your answer might be as simple as — “She’s a young mom with two boys” — to more detailed — “She’s a stay-at-home mom in her mid-30s who loves Starbucks and is dressed head to foot in LuluLemon.” You might also think about what she dislikes or her hopes and dreams for the future. It’s very easy to tell ourselves a detailed story about someone, even with only minimal information.
These almost immediate assumptions we make about someone based on one factor (a license plate, the graphic tee they’re wearing, etc.) are what social scientists call metaperceptions. When we make a quick assumption about someone and decide whether they like us based on things like what political bumper sticker is on their car, what house of worship they attend, or what book they have on their nightstand, we are applying metaperceptions. We assume we know everything about that person based on very few facts.
By doing so, we close off our minds from actually learning about the character of that person or group. Our metaperceptions often cause us to lose our humility and curiosity. Furthermore, research has shown we’re not always correct in our quick assumptions; we don’t always get it right.
Beyond Conflict and More in Common, two leading social science research teams, have been studying these metaperceptions for years. Their research teaches us that we are terrible at guessing what others believe. They asked Republicans, Democrats, and Independents numerous questions about hot-button topics, including immigration, gun control, and police reform. They asked respondents whether they agreed with certain stances, and then, for each issue, they asked one more interesting question.
They asked Democratic respondents, “What percentage of Republican voters do you think believe x,y,z about immigration, gun control, etc.?” They asked Republican respondents the opposite.
Unsurprisingly, the perceived percentages of opposing party beliefs and the actual percentages of party beliefs were often way off. For example, when assessing this statement: “Properly controlled immigration can be good for America,” Democrats estimated that 52% of Republicans would agree, but in reality, 85% of Republicans agreed. When assessing the statement: “Most police are bad people,” Republicans estimated that 52% of Democrats would agree, but only 15% of Democrats actually agreed.
This data suggests that the current state of polarization is not only because people have differences, but also because people exaggerate the magnitude of those differences. The distorted perceptions of “the other side” cause the breakdown of trust and partnership and they can foster extremism, misinformation, and even violence.
How did our perception gap become so bad? There are many historical and sociological reasons for this, but one significant factor is society has become more and more socially isolated and culturally segregated.
"WHEN WE ARE SOCIALLY ISOLATED AND CULTURALLY SEGREGATED, TOXIC POLARIZATION IS INEVITABLE."
Social Isolation and Cultural Segregation
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks about how in-person social intercourse across American society decreased during the past half-century. He explains how membership in things like local churches, parent-teacher associations, military veterans' organizations, and bowling leagues used to give us all a sense of belonging. However, these types of memberships have been on the decline and there have been detrimental effects on society. At one point, he writes, “People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.”
There’s a profoundly Christian ring to that last statement. As Christians, we understand that God wired us for relationship and community. Throughout the creation narrative in Genesis, God repeatedly creates things and calls them good. But in Genesis 2:18, God pointed out something for the first time that was not good. “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Therefore, God then created a woman to be united with the man.
Several verses later, we see a line often repeated at weddings: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). While this principle of becoming one flesh is undoubtedly true of marriage, it can be applied to more than just marriage. God has designed us so that we often feel like we are missing something when we are isolated from one another, but when we join together with other people in a group, we experience a sense of oneness or wholeness.
So what happens when we are isolated? In addition to potentially falling into sinful behavior like selfishness, arrogance, and jealousy, we lose sight of reality. We become prone to reducing people to their ideologies and we rely more and more on our metaperceptions to make sense of the world. Eventually, we may easily fall into extremism, misinformation, and violence traps.
Since Putnam’s book was written, the problems of social isolation have taken on a new dimension — cultural segregation. For various reasons, we don’t often interact with those culturally or politically different. Research has shown that we don’t live in the same neighborhoods and we don’t attend the same churches.
The advancement of the digital age has also not helped. A few decades ago, many Americans would read a daily newspaper, take the subway to work, buy supplies at a home improvement store, and see a new movie at the theaters. These tasks were opportunities to socially interact with strangers of all kinds and be exposed to new and unfamiliar worldviews. Now, all of those activities are on the decline. Instead, people get their filtered news from Facebook, work from home with the assistance of Zoom, buy necessities on Amazon, and watch movies on Netflix.
These new technologies have created digital worlds that are uniquely personalized to our preferences, and the more we live in these worlds, the narrower those worlds become. And while there may be some socializing aspects along the way, they are usually not with strangers. They are with folks we already know, and usually, those people are in similar socioeconomic classes and have similar values and lifestyles.
When we are socially isolated and culturally segregated, toxic polarization is inevitable.
"VIRTUAL SPACES DO NOT ALLOW US TO REALLY GET TO KNOW PEOPLE — ONLY PEOPLE'S OPINIONS AND OTHER PEOPLE'S OPINIONS OF THEIR OPINIONS."
So what can we do to fix it? There are no silver bullets, but here are some steps we can take together.
1. Let’s spend time in the real world
As much as the online world tries to be a safe dialogue space, it mostly isn’t. It is filled with bots spreading misinformation, strangers shaming one another, and anonymous viral videos fueled by angry emojis. It is rarely an accurate mirror of the real world.
We need to recover the lost art of spending time together in the real world. We need to be in unfiltered spaces where everything is not catered to us and where we could be interrupted by strangers making off-putting comments in our personal online spaces. Virtual spaces do not allow us to really get to know people — only people’s opinions and other people’s opinions of their opinions.
This reconnecting with the outside world could include jogging at a public park, going to a farmers market, or riding a city bus. And as long as our eyes are not glued to our smartphones during these types of activities, these small but important ventures into the real world allow us to temporarily break out of our digital echo chambers and get to know people as they really are.
2. Let’s get to know people outside our tribes
As society becomes more polarized and more digital, it has become harder and harder to stay connected with people different from us. Therefore, even if it feels counterintuitive, if there are folks you know who don’t see eye-to-eye with you, cherish those relationships. Invest in them and spend time with them. Have coffee with them. Go to their kids’ birthday parties. Invite them into your homes.
As we do those things, we may discover that people are more nuanced and complicated than we realize. It will become more obvious that it’s not about categorizing people into “good” or “bad.” Some soccer moms work at hospitals. Both pro-life and pro-choice people volunteer at community centers. Both gun owners and anti-gun protestors donate regularly to environmental conservation organizations. Instead of assessing people by the issues we debate, we can start assessing issues by the people we know.
3. Let’s have difficult conversations about things that matter
Unfortunately, one of the trends of our modern age is that often, the “important” stuff of the world is relegated to the digital world, while “small talk” is relegated to the in-person world. The issues still matter and should be discussed. It’s easy to share a post or sign an online petition, but it is much harder to confront a friend about something she said or ask a pastor about how to approach a controversial topic.
We often avoid in-person conversations on contentious issues because they feel too unpredictable and uncoordinated. Too many social dynamics are at play, so we resort to small talk. But having difficult conversations about things that matter is essential. When we ask why people do what they do or how people came to be who they are, we learn and grow.
And as we talk about difficult things, we will soon discover people's values underneath their positions. We will see that someone on the other side of the aisle can be just as loving toward their neighbors or just as passionate about standing for justice as we are. Once we learn how their culture, traditions, and communities lead them to see or do things differently — just as it does for us — we can have the conversations that push us toward overcoming toxic polarization.
We are not suggesting you work with extremists. We are offering ways to move society in a healthier, less-polarized direction. In doing so, we will minimize the perception gaps and metaperceptions that plague our country.
Let’s stop swimming in our echo chambers or demonizing the political opponents we’ve never met. Let’s spend more time in neutral spaces and get to know people outside of our tribes. Let’s talk about things that matter. When that happens, stereotypes and caricatures will break down. Understanding and complexity will take root. And enemies will become friends.
Kevin McIntosh is a community builder and loves making new connections. At the One America Movement, he serves as the Michigan Regional Outreach Manager, working across the Great Lake state to bring programs and services to various communities. Pastor Larry Lin is passionate about connecting the Gospel to current events and social issues, mobilizing the church to serve the poor and disadvantaged, and building bridges of reconciliation. Before coming to the One America Movement, Larry served as a campus minister with Cru in the Washington, DC area and as a pastor at the Village Church in Baltimore, MD. The One America Movement is a national nonprofit confronting toxic polarization in American society.