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Chicago Booth Study Finds Voters' Views Shed Light on Political Polarization

October 10, 2012

New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that our evaluations of political candidates shape our beliefs about the views of other voters, even those supporting the opposing candidate.

Psychologists have argued that people don't put themselves into the shoes of others different from themselves, and don't use their own preferences to make sense of dissimilar others. Oleg Urminsky, an associate professor of marketing at Chicago Booth and Yesim Orhun of the University of Michigan proposed that people do use their own preferences to help makes sense of how others view candidates, as long as they are able to draw a parallel between themselves and others.

The analysis titled "Conditional Projection: How Own Evaluations Impact Beliefs about Others Whose Choices Are Known," will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing Research. In a 2008 pre-election survey, voters rated how much they liked Obama and McCain and then estimated the same ratings among other survey-takers who were backing either Obama or McCain, as well as among all voters. The authors found that the more voters liked a candidate, the more they thought that voters in general liked that candidate, as has been documented in every election since the advent of political polling in the 1940s.

The surprise came when they looked at people's estimates for how they thought voters in the opposing camp rated the candidates. Prior research suggested that either voters' own ratings would not affect their estimates of supporters of the opposing candidate, or that there might be a polarizing relationship - the more highly an Obama voter rated Obama, the more convinced she might be that McCain voters hated Obama.

"Instead, we found a strong link between voters' own ratings and their estimates. The more strongly an Obama voter liked Obama, the more strongly she thought McCain voters liked McCain. And the more strongly the Obama voter disliked McCain, the more strongly she thought McCain voters disliked Obama," write Urminsky and Orhun. The authors extended the results to evaluations of consumer products and show that changes in ratings affect changes in beliefs about others.

"Even if others' choices are different from ours," the authors conclude, "we continue to see others as broadly similar to ourselves, based on how their views correspond to ours." So, if you find yourself making sense of the opposing political views of a relative or neighbor by relating their beliefs to your own, you are not alone. It's how we see across the divide.