Divided We Fall: How to Mend Political Differences

Psychology explains how America became divided and how we can bridge the gap.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

Political polarization is nothing new in America, but recent studies show that a greater number of people are migrating further towards the extreme ends of the spectrum. Instead of a bell curve, the distribution of Americans along the political spectrum these days looks more like a dumbbell.

A key reason why we are shepherding ourselves to opposite poles is rooted in how we attain information. Psychologists have established that the brain is prone to confirmation bias, which is a subconscious tendency to summarily accept or reject evidence based on our beliefs. Studies of confirmation bias reveal that we fail to give sufficient attention to arguments that are discordant to our preconceived notions.

Psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University found that when subjects were told something positive about their preferred politician, the reward center of the brain is activated. But when presented with examples of their party leaders contradicting themselves, analytical parts of the brain went silent. As summarized by Westen, “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.”

Social media, partisan news outlets, and echo chambers make it easy to build a case that supports your beliefs. The challenge is to make a genuine attempt to understand the opposition. Investigating the nuances of complex problems and evaluating the evidence objectively requires intense effort, open-mindedness, and humility. These are difficult but necessary steps in the march towards truth. We need to be vigilant of our biases and ask questions to guide our beliefs rather than have our beliefs guide our questions.

A malignant outgrowth of confirmation bias is groupthink. Whether in cyberspace or the real world, our brain tends to surround itself with like-minded brains. As these tribes assemble, a Darwinian type of peer pressure emerges when there are slight differences of opinion. Soon, each member is vying to advance in the hierarchy of their tribe by exerting the most rigid and extreme version of their opinion. Members of the group with more moderate opinions find themselves following the extremists to conform, or they risk being ostracized by the increasingly radicalized group. Reason often takes a backseat to preserve intragroup harmony and loyalty. The end result: We form highly polarized groups driven by fanatical views that essentially have zero chance of reaching a compromise.

In the political arena, the result of groupthink is a loss for both parties, who now despise one another for the gridlock they had a hand in creating. Legislation that manages to get passed tends to be an extremist policy born of mob mentality, rather than thoughtful discourse between individuals. If left unchecked, progress can be stymied for decades; we languish in a vicious cycle of “one step up, two steps back” politics, whereby each new administration mindlessly reverses everything the previous one has done.

But there is a way out. 

Psychologist Mark Levine at Lancaster University conducted a study that reveals how our brain tricks us into tribalism, and how we can avoid this trap. Levine’s study involved “priming” the minds of archrival soccer fans who support either Manchester United (MU) or Liverpool Football Club (FC). Levine had MU fans complete a questionnaire about the MU team and loyal MU fans. Then they were told to report to another building. As they walked to the other building, an actor posing as a jogger pretended to fall and cry out in pain. Nearly every MU fan offered assistance if the jogger was wearing an MU shirt. However, if the jogger was wearing an FC shirt, only a few of the MU fans stopped to help the fallen man. 

The results reveal a rather disgraceful side of human nature, but there is an encouraging ending. Levine ran the experiment again (with different MU fans), but gave them a questionnaire that got them thinking about the camaraderie of soccer fans in general, not just their team. This time, the subjects helped joggers whether they wore MU or FC shirts. This part of the study offers a hopeful lesson, demonstrating that we can be decent to people outside a narrow alliance. If we constantly remind ourselves that we are all part of a larger team, we can rescue ourselves from the jaws of polarized politics.

The need to recalibrate how we treat one another has never been more urgent. The chasm is so great between parties that we talk about legislation as a political “win” or “loss,” as if governing millions of people is some kind of game. Those who have forgotten that we’re all on the same team need to be sent home. Our first duty needs to be to country, not to political party. The process of healing begins with the resolute rejection of politicians who play for their party and not team America.

Our country looks like a dumbbell. We need to depolarize, renew respect for one another, and admonish those who are opposed to collaboration and compromise. If we can break this treacherous cycle of confirmation bias and groupthink, and rededicate ourselves to truth rather than tribe, Americans will stand united.