Our prejudice problem

People are increasingly aware of the growing political polarization in the United States; for example, I hear many discussions about polarization among the political parties and the resulting problems created, for example, in Congress. I think, however, that relatively fewer people are aware of Americans’ prejudice at the individual level; I rarely hear concerns expressed about the negative attitudes Americans have towards people affiliated with the ‘other’ party. I have long been worried about this. And, people’s responses to the election have heightened my anxiety. I decided to educate myself on the topic and I want to share what I’ve found. The upshot, for my time- or attention-span challenged friends: when it comes to thinking about, or interacting with, people from the ‘other’ party, we Americans have a serious prejudice problem.

I read this 2015 paper by Iyengar and Westwood “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” which Jonathan Haidt describes in his 2016 Edge World Question essay. The authors report four studies (using nationally representative samples) in which they gave Americans various ways to reveal cross-partisan prejudice; they apply the same methods to assess cross-racial prejudice – to have a benchmark for comparison. All studies found prejudice towards people affiliated with the ‘other’ party; and in all cases, prejudice was much greater than any linked to race.

First they used the Implicit Association Test. The test measured peoples’ implicit positive and negative associations – by measuring how quickly and easily people can pair words that are emotionally good versus bad with words and images associated with Republicans vs Democrats; and then, Blacks vs. Whites. Both Blacks and Whites manifest mild preferences (positive associations) for their own group. The effect sizes for cross-partisan implicit attitudes were much larger than cross-race. When Americans look at each other or try to listen to each other, they are slightly biased in favor of their own race, but relatively strongly biased against people from the “other side” politically.

Haidt describes the second study: where the authors “had participants read pairs of fabricated resumes of graduating high school seniors and select one to receive a scholarship. Race made a difference—Black and White participants generally preferred to award the scholarship to the student with the stereotypically Black name. But Party made an even bigger difference, and always in a tribal way: 80 percent of the time, partisans selected the candidate whose resume showed that they were on their side, and it made little difference whether their co-partisan had a higher or lower GPA than the cross-partisan candidate.” I note in passing that Democrat-affiliated respondents exhibited somewhat higher bias.

In the third study, the authors had respondents participate in two games (the Dictator game and the Trust game). Peoples’ gaming decisions reveal their generosity toward and trust of the other player. In both games, effects of racial similarity were negligible and not significant. Effects of party-affiliation similarity were considerable – with players consistently revealing partisan preferences; they trust same-party players more, they are more generous towards same-party players. Democrat- and Republican affiliated players manifested similar levels of bias, except in the Trust game, where Democrats revealed much lower trust of Republicans. That is, they allocate considerably more resources when the other player is a Democrat, trusting the other player to behave appropriately.

In the fourth study, they used the same game structure to distinguish favoritism towards those in one’s own party, from animosity towards those in the other party. They found that peoples’ animosity toward the other was considerably more consequential than favoritism toward same-group affiliated players.


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