Every time they turned on the evening news last year, or picked up a newspaper, psychologists at Duke University saw politicians and pundits who were absolutely certain their views were correct, and anyone who disagreed with them was totally wrong.
How could that be, especially given the complexity of some of the issues that were attracting so much heat?
They decided to take a look at it, and in a study just published in the journal Psychological Science, they produced evidence that the political gridlock in the nation's capital may give a little from time to time, but it's not going to go away anytime soon.
The polarization between the right and the left is so embedded in the personalities and the world view of the principal players that it is feeding upon itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, according to lead author Kaitlin Toner, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University.
"They seemed so sure they were right, and they felt so superior about their own viewpoint," Toner said in a telephone interview. "We were curious about what was causing them to feel that way."
What they found, she added, is a "vicious cycle" in which leaders are likely to become more extreme, not less, because if you feel you are absolutely superior to anyone with an opposing viewpoint it's going to be very difficult to yield.
Whereas a moderate would likely consider evidence on both sides of the issue, "if you believe really strongly in a position you are likely to seek only information that is going to confirm what you already think," she added.
"They may be looking at sources of information that are really polarized as well," she said.
Many other scientists have looked at this same issue, some blaming the polarization on the "rigidity of the right," claiming that dogma -- an authoritative body of moral, and usually religious, opinions -- has made conservatives unable to compromise on principals they consider sacred. But the Duke researchers found a big surprise in their own study. Liberals are less dogmatic than conservatives, but they feel more superior about their own beliefs.
It all depends on the issue.
The researchers recruited 527 people, half of whom have at least some college education, and had them complete questionnaires about their viewpoints on nine political issues: health care, abortion, government aid to the needy, illegal immigration, voter identification laws, income tax rates, torture tactics, affirmative action, and the role of religion in policymaking.
By analyzing how they answered those and other questions, researchers were able to determine whether each participant leaned to the left, or the right.
The participants were also ranked on a "dogmatism scale" to see how strongly they felt about various issues (ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree). Someone who strongly agrees with this statement -- "Anyone who is honestly and truly seeking the truth will end up believing what I believe" -- is likely very dogmatic.
Participants also indicated how correct their opinions were relative to other people's beliefs on each issue, ranging from "no more correct than other viewpoints" to "totally correct -- mine is the only correct view."