Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Cara Wong.

The maps below show the same small city. The shaded area shows how residents delineate their community. The differences are notable. But do these internal maps impact how people make political decisions?


Center for Political Studies Adjunct Faculty Associate and University of Illinois Associate Professor of Political Science Cara Wong studies perceptions of communities and how this impacts policy support. With colleagues Jake Bowers and Tarah Foster Williams of the University of Illinois, and Katherine Drake Simmons of the Pew Research Center, Wong published a paper in the Journal of Politics that considers how these mental maps relate to policy support.

In the study, participants were shown a map of the blocks surrounding their home and a map of their county, and asked to highlight their local community on either. Two thirds focused on the block maps, while one third shaded communities on the county maps. The size highlighted ranged from smaller than a block to larger than two cities. Some participants even highlighted non-contiguous areas.

Then, the participants were asked to describe the demographics of the area they highlighted. Questions included the proportion of blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, and unemployed. Next, they were asked about their take on these factors in the United States in general. Results show that participants view their communities and the United States at large as having more blacks (15% more on average) and fewer whites than the census. Unemployment and racial distortions are bigger than partisan distortions. All three are distorted to some extent across the block, community, and country levels.

The highlighted areas varied between participants. Their internal maps of their communities also differ from how the government creates administrative boundaries. But to what effect?

These discrepancies can play out in the voting booth and in day to day {day-to-day} behaviors. As Wong et al. explain:

The ‘fear of crime’ literature in sociology has explained that personal and altruistic fear—regardless of accuracy—leads to purchases (e.g., guns), behavioral changes (e.g., not going out at night), and abandonment of locations (e.g., parks and industrial areas). Political scientists need to understand whether perceptions of community heterogeneity and interracial competition have equally serious consequences for political actions and outcomes.