Heroes and villains: motivated projection of political identities

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Abstract: Most research on political identities studies how individuals react to knowing others’ political allegiances. However, in most contexts political views and identities are hidden and only inferred, which implies that projected identities may matter as much as actual ones. In this paper, we argue that individuals engage in motivated political projection: the identities people project onto target individuals are strongly conditional on the valence of that target. We test this theoretical proposition via two original pre-registered experimental studies. In Study 1, we rely on a unique visual conjoint experiment in Britain and the US that asks participants to assign partisanship and political ideology to fictional heroes and villains. In Study 2, we present British voters with a vignette that manipulates a subject’s valence and solicits (false) recall information related to the subject’s political identity. We find strong support for motivated political projection in both studies, especially among strong identifiers. Our findings hold both good and bad news for democratic stability: political projection provides grounds to fear further solidification of antagonistic political identities but also suggests potential paths towards reducing partisan hostility.