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Partisans View Their Opponents as Stupid, Not Evil

A new study finds that we tend to view opponents not as evil, but unintelligent.

Key points

  • Americans see their political opponents as unintelligent rather than immoral, new research finds.
  • We recognize this trend in our opponents, too, but exaggerate it to believe they think of us as less intelligent than they actually do.
  • Considering the strengths of an opponent's argument could limit this tendency and help reduce partisan animosity.

According to Charles Krauthammer, "conservatives think liberals are stupid, and liberals think conservatives are evil." This kind of thinking is certainly playing out in popular discourse, with prominent right-leaning commentators often discussing the naivety of their left-wing counterparts, and those further left on the ideological spectrum extolling the apparent evils and general immorality of conservative thought.

However, until recently, there has been relatively little data on whether this adage is true. Despite work showing that liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral intuitions, research about the perceptions that liberals and conservatives hold about each other is relatively thin on the ground. This is a gap in the literature that a team led by Rachel Hartman, a Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill, sought to tackle.

Dalton Caraway // Unsplash
Americans are so divided that it often feels like two groups of citizens fighting for their own ideological territory.
Source: Dalton Caraway // Unsplash

Across four studies, the team polled more than 1,600 Americans to explore how they view their political opponents. Speaking of the need for this work, Hartman said, "I wanted to gain a better understanding of how partisans think about each other. There are so many examples of public figures saying someone on the other side was 'either stupid or evil' for saying or doing something they disagreed with. But which one do most people think it is? And more importantly, what are the implications of how one thinks about one’s political opponents?"

In Study 1, the team found that when judging outgroup members, a sample of 531 liberals and conservatives distinguished between unintelligence and immorality. That is, the groups did not have a generic "negativity" towards the outgroup, and instead judged these traits differently. Contrary to Krauthammer's maxim, both groups saw the other as more unintelligent than they did immoral. This finding was replicated in a sample of 404 North Carolina voters, as well as a nationally representative sample of almost 650 participants.

Repeated replication of findings in social psychology is a good start to showing the accuracy of a finding. Speak of their results, Hartman summarised two points:

"First, that partisans tend to think the other side is more stupid than evil. Second, Democrats and Republicans are pretty similar in the way they think about their political opponents.

While it’s good that people don’t see the other side as evil, I don’t know if seeing them as stupid is that much better. There’s a saying called 'Hanlon’s razor' that says, 'Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.' I disagree with that. It sets up a false dichotomy, as if our only choices when we see something we disagree with are to choose between malice and stupidity. Instead, we should try our best to 'steel-man' our opponents."

This "steel-manning" process, which consists of forming and expressing the strongest possible version of an opponent's argument, is thought to be difficult—especially because considering the strengths of an outgroup argument may cause dissonance in our own identity. Hartman believes that this is possible in most cases though, and added that "... doing that more often would likely reduce a lot of partisan animosity."

Although exploring perceptions of outgroup members is interesting, considering what they think about you is also important. The final study in the paper explored these "meta-perceptions" and found that people tend to be accurate in their perceptions that outgroups see them more as stupid than immoral. However, the effect was exaggerated, meaning that we tend to think that outgroups see us as more stupid than they actually do.

Looking further ahead, Hartman and her team are looking to explore ways of bridging partisan divides. "Of course, there are a lot of other ways one can think about others, including positive ways. I think we researchers (and humans more generally) often focus on the negative, but it really narrows our view and doesn’t allow us to capture information that might give us a different perspective."

The work is published now in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.


Hartman, R., Hester, N., & Gray, K. (2022). People see political opponents as more stupid than evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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