The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?

2 thoughts on “The Great Perceptual Rift

  1. Anna

    Professor Smith:

    I would suggest that your second path is the one that would be most effective in solving this rift. However, bipartisan leadership would be necessary. As in Watergate, elites would have to signal to ordinary Americans that a serious breach of trust has occurred and that crimes had been committed. Someone like Lindsay Graham or Ben Sasse would have to start exercising some backbone on these questions, instead of just talking about it.

    We also need a serious policy effort to bridge the economic and social challenges that the “left behinds” face. I’m thinking here of the rural poor, the nice postal clerk who sold me some stamps in Evergreen, VA (near Appomattox) or the guy who was delivering some IKEA but was telling me about living with five other people in a two bedroom in SE DC, and how he doesn’t feel like he has a way out. I would guess the two of them voted (if they did at all) for different candidates, but both of them were looking for a chance to better their position in the world. Never mind the guy with UAW stickers on his truck and a Beth Harwell for Congress sticker right next to them. She’s been the Republican Speaker of the Tennessee House since 2011.

    During my recent sojourn through Tennessee and Southern Virginia, I often wondered where we’d be as a country if LBJ had been able to carry the Great Society like he wanted, instead of getting bogged down in Vietnam ( That kind of thinking was utterly absent in 2016, to HRC’s discredit. But it’s exactly that kind of thinking that we need: a big vision of where a candidate wants the country to go and what they want to achieve in office.

    Someone like Amy Klobuchar (Senator from Minnesota) or Sherrod Brown (Sen., Ohio) might be able to reconnect with voters and demonstrate the kind of vision the country needs, they might be able to be more than just “anti-Trump.”


  2. Pingback: Time to Defend Democratic Institutions – The Great Misallocation

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