PHILADELPHIA — Political polarization in America may be at its highest point in decades. Sometimes, it can seem like Republicans and Democrats hate their political opponents more than they love their own side. However, a new study finds that hatred doesn’t run as deep as many may think. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say negative partisanship is largely exaggerated — with political agents and the media mainly responsible for stoking those flames.

A team from Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication set out to answer two questions: First, how widespread is partisan hatred? Then, is that hatred really more intense than an American’s love for their own party?

Using several different methods, including a survey examining how political polarization and hatred of an opponent affects party affiliation, researchers found that the main reason Americans choose their political party has more to do with love than hate. The team also looked at how loyal voters are to their party based on their hatred of the opponent. To do this, they used an experiment which separated hurting the opposing political party monetarily and helping their own party monetarily.

The results continue to show voters are generally more interested in supporting their own political beliefs rather than hurting someone else’s. Moreover, the team notes the implications of continuing negative partisanship are problematic for society.

“If there’s this gap in how much you like your side and dislike the other side, and it’s all motivated by emotions, you’re less likely to hold presidents accountable for things and more likely to vote for your side no matter what they do, even when it’s corrupt,” says Professor Yphtach Lelkes in a media release. “If it’s just driven by hatred, then it’s not about interest groups and coming together and fighting for your group. It’s much more toxic.”

Pushing hatred for the clicks?

Study leader Amber Hye-Yon Lee hopes their findings can help Americans better understand what motivates their neighbors to think and vote the way they do.

“Many people are led to believe that the other side is driven by hatred and is out to get them,” Lee says. “Hatred only breeds hatred, so by showing that there is really no clear evidence for hatred of the other party trumping everything, I am hoping we can clear up some of the misperceptions people have about how much they are hated by their political opponents, and by extension, discourage people from feeding their own hostility in response to exaggerated perceptions of hostility coming from the other side.”

Lelkes adds that even scholars enjoy using the term “negative partisanship” in their studies because of the attention it can bring. The team also accuses news outlets of having a bias towards continuously covering events involving extreme emotion, political unrest, and polarizing subjects because they “garner more clicks” online.

“When we talk about politics being overwhelmingly negative, it leads to that,” Lelkes concludes. “We are wildly off in how we think the other side feels about us. We’re trying to tone that down.”

The findings appear in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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