Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Psychological and Political Polarization Are Toxic

We are divided, politically and psychologically, into two rigid opposing groups.

We are a politically paralyzed and polarized country, but is this more about our differing psychological perceptions?

Our democratic political system is acrimoniously divided. The politicians we elect hold diametrically opposed sentiments, with extremist views on the liberal left and the conservative right. Congress is paralyzed in a perpetual state of conflict and inaction, and the Supreme Court is split down the middle.

Lest you think this is solely an American dilemma, I remind you that bitter polarization is found in most developed, democratic countries. Others plagued by bitter schisms in government and among citizens include the United Kingdom (especially with Brexit), France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Israel, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, Burma, Argentina, Poland, Hungary, India…I could go on.

There are unique issues in each of these conflicts, but the overriding theme in these disagreements appears to be along a single major political axis: The Left (liberal, progressive) versus the Right (conservative).

It is almost as if life is viewed through two totally different lenses. We may witness the same scene, and yet draw totally opposed perceptions about what we see. (This is vividly demonstrated in the classic Japanese film Rashomon.)

Could it that this universal conflict is beyond the realm of politics, and that we are really deeply divided along psychological dimensions.

Political disagreements might ostensibly be about taxes, government, religion, intermarriage, gender, abortion, immigration, corruption, health care or other sensitive areas. But these all provoke strong psychological reactions, comprised of feelings and thoughts, and a vicious cycle ensues with the psychological and the political feeding each other.

Conservatives want to preserve the status quo and are wary of social changes. They wish to uphold stability, the rule of law, social order, safety, religion and tradition. Though they are comfortable with power and authority, they are concerned about size of government, and want a more laissez-faire attitude toward markets and choices.

Liberals are more tolerant about social changes and comfortable with diversity. They want government to have a major role in protecting its citizens from poverty, pollution or corporate exploitation. They support government regulation of banks, financial institutions, healthcare, and big pharma.

But the knee-jerk reactions on the Right and Left have less to do with politics, and are dictated by what increases or reduces their personal anxieties.

When liberals and conservatives view the same presentation of facts, they respond in very different ways emotionally and psychologically. Their internal comfort levels signal to them whether or not they sense internal discomfort or anxieties (tension, anger, sadness). They draw opposite conclusions (thoughts, cognition) based on how they personally feel (mood, emotions).

Inherent polarization is further fueled in our current levels of fear and incivility. It is vital that we tone down the rancor in our body politic and in our psychological lives. We should be looking at ways to facilitate honest communication between those with whom we vehemently disagree. It is crucial that the perception of personal threat be lessened so that anxiety and self-protective responses are reduced, and accommodation and cooperation become the norm.

Rigid polarization is toxic to our countries and ourselves. If we could establish as overriding human goals to foster mutual respect, empathy, tolerance and compromise on personal levels as well as in national and international forums, our lives would be enhanced and our personal and public worlds would be much safer.

Some of you might think that this is “pie in the sky” fantasizing. But it is much more important than mere wishing: We should be giving as much emphasis to “Our Emotional Footprint” as we do to our carbon footprint. We should strive for cooperative models of existence and communication in both personal and political intercourse.

This is a major challenge for humanity, and should be our vital and attainable human goal. With good will, commitment and fortitude, we can achieve enhancing and peaceful personal lives, communities and countries.