Yael Schonbrun Ph.D.


The Psychology of Political Division

Could learning about our political minds help bridge the divide?

Posted Jul 17, 2018

Source: Pexels

In these crazy political times, it seems that there are some folks whose brains are simply not screwed on straight. Day after day we observe scandal, egregious behavior, misrepresentation, and so on. It can feel terrifying.

Agree with that depiction of the political landscape of 2018? You’re not alone. Only here’s the hitch: It isn’t just folks within your own political party who feel that way; pretty much everyone does.

It turns out that concluding that you are right and “they” are wrong is hardwired into our brains. But by understanding the natural workings of our political minds, we are empowered to apply our brainpower in more helpful ways.

A recent podcast episode reviews The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, a fascinating and research-packed exploration of the psychology of the political mind by New York University professor Jonathan Haidt. In his book, he writes about how our brains are built to conclude that “half the people in this country live in a different moral universe.”

Haidt argues that the building blocks of society rely on morality (a belief in what is right and what is wrong). A shared morality helps humans to bind together into cohesive social groups, and that allows us to live more productively and effectively. Inherent in this socialization process, however, is the division of individuals into groups to which we either belong or do not belong. Those who belong become our comrades; those who do not, our adversaries.

In Haidt’s book, he describes how our gut feelings about ideas inherent to our own group practices tend to be positive. Moreover, our feelings are powerful, primary, and difficult to change. Because of the primary and leading nature of gut intuitions of "right" and "wrong," our reasoning and thinking mind takes on the posthoc job of rationalizing our intuitions. In other words, the feelings come first, and the reasoning comes second.

Further magnifying the power of our gut feelings is a process known as confirmation bias. In this process, the human brain automatically and skillfully works to confirm that which we already believe by poking holes in the logic of that which we do not believe. Yet we lack a natural ease in questioning our own ideas or opening our minds up to those that do not mesh with our already-held belief structures. That means it can be excruciatingly hard to change your own mind—or to change somebody else’s. 

Thankfully, it’s not impossible. Once we understand the ways in which our brains are wired, we can begin to approach our in- and out-groups a bit differently; we can even absorb news and engage in conversations with comrades and adversaries in new ways.

For starters, we can begin to appreciate the ways that our differences in views and values balance each other. As Haidt’s research on morality demonstrates, for example, political groups subscribe to different moral foundations. Democrats are more likely to prioritize caring for vulnerable or oppressed individuals, whereas Republicans are more likely to prioritize values of authority and appreciation of traditions. In many ways, such differences offer a counterbalancing action where either party on its own might lean too far in one direction.

While our moral minds may lead us down a path of division, we can choose to pause and reflect on whether or how far down that path we wish to travel. We can, for example, choose to appreciate the value of differing views of the "right" and "wrong" way to live. We can choose to believe in positive intentions, even when those intentions arise from entirely different moral values. We can acknowledge the way our righteous minds tell us a story that is only partly true.

By acknowledging the ways that our political minds can lead us deeper down the rabbit hole of division, we may be empowered to start creating bridges. An understanding of our political brains can help us to initiate that process.

For a review of Haidt's wonderful book, check out this podcast episode.