Conservatives, liberals not as polarized as commonly perceived, study finds

UC Berkeley graduate student Doug Ahler published a study showing that conservatives and liberals are not as politically extreme as they are perceived to be.
Lorenz Angelo Gonzales/Staff
UC Berkeley graduate student Doug Ahler published a study showing that conservatives and liberals are not as politically extreme as they are perceived to be.

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A UC Berkeley graduate student published a study this month that found that conservatives and liberals are not as polarized as they appear to voters.

In the study, called “Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization” and published in the Journal of Politics, political science graduate student Doug Ahler surveyed 2,444 California voters to see whether they perceive those on the different ends of the political spectrum to be more or less extreme than they actually are.

“People generally tend to see conservatives as more extremely conservative than they are and tend to see liberals as more extremely liberal than they are,” said UC Berkeley associate professor of political science Gabriel Lenz, Ahler’s dissertation advisor.

In 2011, Ahler pitched the idea for the study, which was inspired by an article about how conservatives perceived liberals using data from the 1970s. He decided to do similar research based on more recent data.

In the first study discussed in his paper, Ahler asked the first half of his respondents to rate themselves on a scale of one to seven, one being more liberal and seven being more conservative, on two issues: “the role of government in managing social welfare and the economy” and “the trade off between protecting the environment and protecting jobs.”

For the second half, Ahler asked the respondents to rank, using the same scale, where they think Californian liberals and conservatives would rank themselves.

Based on the results, liberals were less liberal than conservatives thought they were, and vice versa. For example, while conservatives ranked liberals as 2.9 points more liberal than themselves on one question, in reality, the difference between the two groups was 1.63 points.

This misperception of how extreme others are, Ahler found, might have an effect on people’s own political leanings. In a second study, he asked respondents to rate their own views on various issues after informing them of how extreme most conservatives and liberals actually are. When informed, the respondents reported less extreme views than those left to guess the average extremism of liberals and conservatives.

Lenz said this perceived polarization results from the media misrepresenting various political groups by mostly putting extremists on television. Viewers then see these extremists as representative of all liberals or all conservatives, despite those groups being more moderate as a whole.

He said one consequence of the misperceptions outlined in Ahler’s paper is that Democrats and Republicans tend to factor out the potentially good candidates who are outside their parties.

Currently, Ahler is working on several other related studies, including one on how people perceive political parties.

Contact Octavia Sun at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @octavia_sun.

A previous version of this article described UC Berkeley associate professor Gabriel Lenz’s involvement in the study as serving in an assisting capacity. In fact, Lenz was serving as Ahler’s dissertation adviser.