Differences Beyond Identity: Perceived Construal Distance and Interparty Animosity in the United States

Differences Beyond Identity: Perceived Construal Distance and Interparty Animosity in the United States

By Austin van Loon, Amir Goldberg, Sameer B. Srivastava
July 2020Working Paper No. 3883

What leads people to feel negatively about members of other social groups? While recent work has mostly focused on the strength of group identity, we propose that perceptions of intergroup difference, and the animus they catalyze, are often rooted in beliefs that members of other groups interpret the world in inherently different ways. Drawing on work in the sociology of culture, we define these interpretations—which we refer to as construals—as cognitive associations and develop a theory of multilevel perceived construal distance. We theorize that perceived intergroup construal distance relates to negative outgroup affect, whereas perceptions of construal distance between an outgroup and “most people” relates to outgroup dehumanization. We introduce a new method, the Multilevel Construal Elicitation Task (MCET), to tap respondents’ multilevel construals and apply it to politically affiliated Americans’ perceptions of the concept “America.” In support of our theory, we demonstrate that antipathy toward members of the opposing party is related to people’s perceptions of construal distance, above and beyond their strength of party identity or ideology. Our findings contribute to debates on the causes of increased political polarization in the U.S. and have implications for research on identity, social boundaries, and measuring cultural meaning.