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Why We Live in Ideological Enclaves

The psychological roots of our troublesome tendency to live among the like-minded.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: lecrajane/Flickr)

This past election night, the most telling maps weren’t those that divided the nation into red and blue states. They were the more detailed ones of individual states, which usually showed a few blue dots (representing big cities and university towns) in a sea of red.

Increasingly, our cultural divide is also a geographical divide, as mobile Americans choose to live among people with similar ideological beliefs. But why? A research study published this summer provides a clear answer: It’s far more emotionally comfortable.

“Living among politically dissimilar others has a psychological effect on people,” write psychologists William Chopik of Michigan State University and Matt Motyl of the University of Illinois–Chicago. People in such circumstances “find it difficult depending on others, and taking the perspective of others.”

They further report that, in a large-scale study, a “lack of ideological fit with one’s environment was associated with a difficulty to form close relationships.” Well, how intimate can you get with one of those people?

The lack of contact with those who think differently can create misunderstandings.

The researchers used two data sets from the website, which features a variety of surveys designed to reveal participants’ personalities and ethical codes. They collected information on just over 19,000 people, all of whom noted the location of their home, and their political orientation.

Participants responded to 36 statements regarding their comfort or discomfort with emotional closeness, including “I try to avoid getting too close to others,” which suggests a strategy of avoidance, and “I worry that others won’t care about me as much as I care about them,” which is an indicator of anxiety.

An additional 14 statements measured their empathetic concern for others, and their willingness to imagine how things look from another’s point of view. Their level of ideological fit with their neighbors was determined by comparing their self-identified ideology to a database that reveals how individual zip codes voted in the 2008 election.

The researchers found participants were more likely to avoid emotional intimacy with others if their ideology differed from the predominant one in their neighborhood. They were also less likely to report they tried to understand people better by imagining things from their perspective.

The good news was an ideological mismatch did not impact empathetic concern. But the overall results suggest living in such circumstances “shapes individuals to have dispositions where they are less likely to psychologically connect with other people.”

Such connections are, of course, an enormously important component of a satisfying life. As Chopik and Motyl put it, “the social environment around us is often a large component of our happiness, and how we behave.”

So our decision to live among like-minded others is, from a psychological perspective, totally understandable, and even healthy. But, as we’ve just seen, the resultant lack of contact with those who think differently can also create misunderstandings, allow the formation of stereotypes — and lead to shocks on election night.