How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

On the Cognitive and Historic Roots of Modern Polarization

Disagreements about the issues are not about the issues, but much deeper needs

Americans have always disagreed, about a lot. Somehow though, we’ve managed to get along with each other while we do. Why, then, has disagreeing become so nasty, so fierce, not just a battle about ideas but an expression of personal enmity? What are the historic roots of our particularly visceral modern ideological warfare, a competition that has so dramatically closed minds and compelled more narrow views, impeding compromise and progress as we circle the wagons of our tribes and treat those with whom we disagree as dangerous, as a threat, as the enemy?

The angry us-against-them nature of our polarization suggests that the issues we’re fighting over are just surrogates for a more primal conflict. Whether we’re fighting about a current issue like abortion, gun control, climate change, or a more historic conflict, like the centuries-old dispute over the appropriate size and rights of government, the battles have become so mean-spirited and hostile, there must be something more profound at stake than just the issues themselves. Evidence from several fields of social science, and a review of recent American history, offers the following possible explanation.

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Research on the theory of Cultural Cognition has found that our views on issues of the day are in fact only reflections of deeper worldviews about the basic way we prefer society to operate. We adopt views on various issues based not just on the facts but so our views align with those of the groups with which we most closely identify. This helps us feel safe, since as social animals we depend on our group, our tribe, literally for our safety and survival. Agreeing with the group maintains us as a protected member in good standing. And if everyone in our group agrees, that social unity increases our group’s influence in the competition with other tribes for setting society’s rules. The more powerful and successful our group is, the safer we feel.

Cultural Cognition identifies four basic groups;

Individualists, who prefer a society that maximizes individual freedom and choice and control. (They prefer less government, i.e. “socialism”.)

• Communitarians, who prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society that sacrifices some personal liberty in the name of the greater common good. (They prefer a more active role for government.)

• Hierarchists, who prefer a traditional and unchanging society operating by fixed and commonly accepted hierarchies of social and economic class. (They prefer less government butting in and making things fair.)

• Egalitarians, who prefer a more flexible society, unconstrained by traditional fixed hierarchies. (They prefer more government, as an engine of social and economic equity.)

The influence of these underlying worldviews on how we feel about individual issues is profound. Cultural Cognition research has found that these basic group identities are more accurate predictors of our positions on many of the contentious issues of the day than political affiliation, education, religion, or any of the more common demographic identifiers. 

By itself, Cultural Cognition does not explain why feelings have grown so fierce and minds so closed, why our disputes have become so nasty and angry and personal. But a related field of social science may add an important piece to the puzzle. Cultural Cognition plays a role in the psychology of risk perception, the way we perceive and respond to potential danger. This critical system helps keep us safe, so it triggers deep and powerful instincts, one of which is to look to our tribal affiliations for a sense of safety when we are worried. The more threatened and unsafe we feel, the stronger these instinctive behaviors become. The more we think the indians are attacking, the more likely we are to circle the wagons, a black and white us-against-them world in which everybody inside the circle is an ally, and anybody outside is the enemy.

This would explain the fierce combative nature of our tribal polarized society, if in fact people feel more threatened and worried now than they did 30 or 40 years ago, and a fair case can be made that, because of several recent events and trends, they do.

1. The 60s and 70s were a uniquely liberal period in American history, a time in which society moved sharply toward the kind of world preferred by egalitarian-communitarians and away from the kind of society preferred by individualists and hierarchists. The Supreme Court legalized abortion, expanded civil rights, established rights for accused criminals, and suspended the death penalty. Congress and the Johnson administration gave us The Great Society,

These sweeping government interventions, breaking down traditional rules in the name of egalitarian fairness and equity and ‘we’re all in this together’ communitarianism, hardly made society ‘great’ to conservative hierarchists or individualists, who prefer a world in which there is less of a role for government, not more. Just how threatening can be seen in the way these liberal changes affected voting patterns in the “red’ parts of the country where the population is predominantly more individualist-hierarchist (politically, more conservative and libertarian). (An interesting aside on this change. The Red State – Blue State distinction, an accepted icon in our modern polarized society, didn’t even begin until NBC commentator Tim Russert popularized it in 2000.) When President Lyndon Johnson said, after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “we (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation”, his remark presciently captured how powerfully threatened people feel when society no longer works the way they want it to and another tribe’s worldview is in control.

But the liberal 60s and 70s alone did not give us the nasty polarization of today. The conservative backlash against the liberal 60s and 70s helped elect Ronald Reagan and create modern conservatism, but, famously, Reagan and liberal Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill could still ‘have a beer together’ at the end of a hard day of political fighting. From the halls of Congress to the streets of America, political disagreements were plenty intense, but there were nowhere near as angry and hostile and closed-minded as they have become. So what else might have made modern times feel more threatening, and fueled the virulent rancor of today?

2. One possible cause might be something as fundamental as how much and how fast the world has changed in the past few decades. Research into the association between basic personality traits and political affiliation by Jonathan Haidt and others has found that, in their personal lives, conservatives tend to be less open to change and more comfortable with things that are familiar and orderly and done ‘the way they’ve always been done’ (note that many conservatives argue that marriage should only be heterosexual because ‘that’s traditional, the way it’s always been’). Those personal preferences for predictability and stability are certainly consistent with the sort of society hierarchists prefer, a society that is stable and operating under a familiar, orderly, and unchanging traditional status quo.

But if anything has been constant in the past 30 years, it is change. Consider how sweeping and rapid the changes have been in our post-industrial techno/information age, in almost every phase of our lives, and how different our world is today than it was in 1980. For people whose personalities and underlying worldviews prefer more stability and less change, this can’t help but be unsettling. A dynamic world is, after all, an inherently unstable and threatening world to someone who is comfortable when things change less, not more.

3. In a related piece of research just published, investigators found that people who by their general nature tend to be more fearful and upset by change, also tend to hold more conservative positions. In “Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences,” Rose McDermott, lead author, said “People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.” “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative.” This finding speaks to the generally more hostile, vituperative closed-minded nature of how hierarchists and individualists express their polarization.

4. But while change may inherently feel threatening to hierarchists, and the liberal government intervention of the 60s and 70s may feel threatening to individualists, another profound trend in the past few decades has contributed to how threatened people feel in all the Cultural Cognition tribes; the growing income inequality gap in the United States, which began to grow in the late 70’s.

 

Survey after survey shows that, across all the Cultural Cognition tribes, more and more people feel that they are ‘have-nots’, that their resources are dwindling, that they have less and less control over their lives and their futures. The loss of control – powerlessness – is profoundly threatening. Research into risk perception has found that loss of control is one of the major psychological factors that makes any circumstance feel scarier.

The evidence that the inequality gap is making people across the population feel powerless, and threatened, can be seen in the similarity between two seemingly disparate groups, the Tea Party movement and the “Occupy” movement. Both are angry at the loss of control over their lives. Tea Party members - mostly individualists and hierarchists - blame government for imposing limits on individual freedom and butting in with ‘socialist’ (egalitarian) rules and regulations. The Occupy movement, mostly communitarians and egalitarians, blame the rich one percent, the powerful who selfishly benefit by using their wealth to enforce the hierarchical status quo. But though each camp blames targets appropriate to their underlying preferences about how society should operate, the cri de coeur of both groups is the same, a sense of losing control, a modern version of “Don’t Tread on Me!”, the motto on an early American colonial flag as people in the colonies began to assert control over their lives. It is interesting that that ‘Don’t Tread on Me” (Gadsden) flag features an image of a coiled rattlesnake, striking. Except to feed, rattlesnakes only strike when they feel threatened.

Certainly other factors are contributing to the severity of our modern divisiveness. Some are themselves manifestations of the way the deeper threats described above fuel the underlying passions of our polarized world;

5. The explosion of lobbyists since the 70’s (a $100 million industry in Washington D.C. in 1976 - $2.5 billion in 2006), and countless new interest groups screaming their narrow passions, has made the combat over issues much more high profile and intense, which leaves the winners more pleased, and losers more angry and threatened when issues aren’t decided their way.

6. The cynical ‘appeal to the base’ realities of modern primary elections is more and more being done by promoting fear of the other candidate or party. And firing up ‘the base’ means inflaming the passions of those true believers who are already more motivated by their inherent tribal identities and affiliations, and readier to circle the wagons.

7. The shallower/faster paced modern news media focus more than ever on the tribal conflict of politics rather than the ideas of policy. And within the newly democratized media, a new breed of opinion merchants can reach their tribes and preach their polarized version of the truth as never before, especially those who so angrily play directly to the fears of hierarchists and individualists,

The explanation of our modern polarization offered here is an admittedly speculative synthesis based on the interplay of diverse events and trends and elements of human psychology. And precisely because this thesis suggests that our ideological warfare stems from really deep parts of human cognition, it may not help much. The fundamental need for a sense of control in order to feel safe, and our instinct to turn to the tribe for that safety, are so deep, so intimately tied to survival, and so subconscious and beyond our free will, that considering them intellectually is not likely to change these feelings or undo this powerful, innate part of human cognition. Only changing the underlying conditions that trigger these feelings can do that, and that is a much taller order.

But maybe it might help a bit if we can see - and honestly admit - that the arguments we’re having about the issues of the day really aren’t about the facts at all, or about politics, but are really just reflections of more profound aspects of human behavior. Maybe that recognition can help us step back a bit from the hot front lines and begin to understand and respect the honest reasons for the depths of the passions of those with whom we disagree. And perhaps that can provide a basis for starting to temper our own behavior and talk with each other again, rather than at and past each other.

Maybe understanding the historic events and behavioral roots that have produced these venomously angry polarized times can help us let go of at least a little of our own deep instinct to align with the tribe in the name of safety and protection. And maybe, in the name of the very protection that we all seek, this can help realize how tribalism and ideological impasse make us more vulnerable the large scale risks that threaten us all, challenges that are far too big and complex for any one tribe to solve alone.

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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