How Politics Breaks Our Brains, and How We Can Put Them Back Together

We’re partisans by nature, and once we pick a side we see the world in red or blue.

Gary Neill
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Brian Resnick
Sept. 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

I’m ly­ing in the met­al coffin of an MRI ma­chine, listen­ing to what sounds like jack­ham­mers and smelling my own breath go stale. My head is se­cured in place. I have a pan­ic but­ton. I won’t press it, but I do grip it tightly. Above me, faces flash on a screen.

Some are hu­man, oth­ers are dolls, and some are di­git­ally blen­ded to be something in between. It’s my job to fig­ure out which are which. And as I do, re­search­ers at New York Uni­versity’s brain-ima­ging cen­ter are track­ing what goes on in my head.

I’m not sick, and we’re not here to test my calm in the face of claus­tro­pho­bia. In­stead, I’m a sub­ject for re­search on a big­ger ques­tion: Is the hu­man polit­ic­al brain broken?

The NYU team is try­ing to show that our brains are hard­wired for par­tis­an­ship and how that skews our per­cep­tions in pub­lic life. Re­search at NYU and else­where is un­der­scor­ing just how blind the “us-versus-them” mind-set can make people when they try to pro­cess new polit­ic­al in­form­a­tion. Once this par­tis­an­ship men­tal­ity kicks in, the brain al­most auto­mat­ic­ally pre-fil­ters facts — even non­con­tro­ver­sial ones — that of­fend our polit­ic­al sens­ib­il­it­ies.

“Once you trip this wire, this trig­ger, this cue, that you are a part of ‘us-versus-them,’ it’s al­most like the whole brain be­comes re-co­ordin­ated in how it views people,” says Jay Van Bavel, the lead­er of NYU’s So­cial Per­cep­tion and Eval­u­ation Lab.

Our tend­ency to­ward par­tis­an­ship is likely the res­ult of evol­u­tion — form­ing groups is how pre­his­tor­ic hu­mans sur­vived. That’s help­ful when try­ing to mas­ter an un­for­giv­ing en­vir­on­ment with Stone Age tech­no­logy. It’s less so when try­ing to foster a func­tion­al demo­cracy.

Un­der­stand­ing the oth­er side’s point of view, even if one dis­agrees with it, is cent­ral to com­prom­ise, poli­cy­mak­ing, and any hope for ci­vil­ity in civic life. So if our brains are blind­ing us to in­form­a­tion that chal­lenges our par­tis­an pre­dis­pos­i­tion, how can we hope ever to find com­mon ground? It’s a chal­lenge that is stump­ing both the elect­or­ate and the elec­ted of­fi­cials who rep­res­ent them. Con­gres­sion­al hear­ings are hear­ings in name only — op­por­tun­it­ies for politi­cians to grand­stand rather than talk with each oth­er. And the polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion, even among those well versed in the is­sues, largely ex­ists in par­al­lel red and blue uni­verses, men­tal spheres with few or no com­mon facts to serve as start­ing points.

But rather than des­pair, many polit­ic­al-psy­cho­logy re­search­ers see their res­ults as reas­on for hope, and they raise a tan­tal­iz­ing pro­spect: With enough un­der­stand­ing of what ex­actly makes us so vul­ner­able to par­tis­an­ship, can we re­shape our polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment to ac­cess the bet­ter an­gels of our neur­o­lo­gic­al nature?

WHAT DOES ANY OF this have to do with pho­tos of dolls? The re­search­ers are test­ing one of par­tis­an­ship’s more fright­en­ing fea­tures: It al­lows us, even pushes us, to de­hu­man­ize those we cat­egor­ize as “them.”

I’m tasked with dis­tin­guish­ing hu­mans from non­hu­mans, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. While some of the faces ap­pear to be nor­mal pho­to­graphs of men and wo­men, oth­ers are warped in­to something that would have scared me as a child — faces that look like masks. They have no creases in their pla­sticky skin, and their big, anime-style eyes shine death stares. They are dis­tinctly non­hu­man. It’s the ones in between that pose the prob­lem, however. A face that’s 90 per­cent hu­man and 10 per­cent doll is plainly seen as hu­man. But when the face is 50 per­cent doll and 50 per­cent hu­man, that’s where par­tis­an per­spect­ive takes over.

Researchers test partisanship by asking participants to distinguish human from nonhuman faces. (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 52 (2014) 15"“23/Hackel et al., JESP, 2014) (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 52 (2014) 15–23/Hackel et al., JESP, 2014)

Re­search­ers test par­tis­an­ship by ask­ing par­ti­cipants to dis­tin­guish hu­man from non­hu­man faces. (Journ­al of Ex­per­i­ment­al So­cial Psy­cho­logy 52 (2014) 15”“23/Hack­el et al., JESP, 2014)For the first tri­al I am just shown a set of faces, but for the next run, Van Bavel in­tro­duces a twist: The faces are di­vided in­to two groups. Be­fore I see the first group, the Amer­ic­an flag flashes, and I’m told I’m look­ing at my coun­try­men. Be­fore the second, a Rus­si­an flag ap­pears. These are faces of Rus­si­ans.

As I try to as­sess which faces have a soul be­hind them, a dark fa­cet of par­tis­an psy­cho­logy sur­faces. If the face be­longs to a team mem­ber — in my case, an Amer­ic­an — I’m more likely to as­sign them hu­man­ity. I’m less in­clined to do the same for Rus­si­ans.

It’s not en­tirely my fault — or, at least, not the fault of any con­scious de­cisions. In­stead, it’s just my brain pro­cess fol­low­ing a well-worn pat­tern. When Van Bavel looks at the brain scans of people in his doll­house ex­per­i­ment, he finds that the brain re­gions used to em­path­ize with oth­ers aren’t as act­ive when a per­son is eval­u­at­ing faces he or she has been told be­long to the oth­er team.

HU­MANS’ WILL­ING­NESS TO de­hu­man­ize is of­ten men­tioned along­side some of the darkest chapters of his­tory — the Holo­caust, gen­o­cide in Rwanda, the Kh­mer Rouge — when re­gimes went to great lengths to build an­ger against “the oth­er.” In my case, the ex­per­i­ment re­lies on a na­tion­al iden­tity re­in­forced since birth.

But to cre­ate the base “us and them” struc­ture, none of that is needed. The brain is so hard­wired to build such groups that Van Bavel says he can turn any­one on the street in­to a par­tis­an. “I can do it in five minutes with a ran­dom stranger,” he says. All it takes is a coin flip.

“Some­body comes in­to your lab and you tell them, ‘You’re part of the blue team,’ ” he ex­plains. “The next per­son who comes in, you flip a coin, let’s say it comes up the oth­er way. And you say, ‘You’re on the red team.’ “

That’s it. The team­mates nev­er have to meet. Or in­ter­act. There doesn’t need to be any­thing at stake. But with­in minutes, these in­sta-par­tis­ans like their team­mates bet­ter than they like the oth­er guys. And it shows when Van Bavel puts his sub­jects through his MRI doll­house.

Red-team mem­bers are more likely to see hu­mans when they’re told they’re look­ing at fel­low red-team faces. Blue-team mem­bers re­spond the same way. Oth­er tests re­veal that red-team mem­bers re­mem­ber red-team faces more ac­cur­ately, and if Van Bavel asks sub­jects to al­loc­ate money, red-team mem­bers will pay out more to their own. Team mem­bers also have less sym­pathy for those on the oth­er side, and even ex­per­i­ence pleas­ure while read­ing about their pain.

I’m not just in­side the MRI to be stumped by Rus­si­an dolls. The re­search­ers are also check­ing to see if my brain has a con­ser­vat­ive or lib­er­al shape.

The author being loaded into an MRI machine. (Reena Flores) Reena Flores/National Journal

The au­thor be­ing loaded in­to an MRI ma­chine. (Reena Flores)In 2011, a team of Brit­ish sci­ent­ists pub­lished a pa­per that found that brain struc­tures cor­rel­ated with polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion. Spe­cific­ally, con­ser­vat­ives ten­ded to have lar­ger amy­g­dala areas — brain mat­ter that plays a role in fear con­di­tion­ing — than lib­er­als. The res­ults ad­ded to a body of re­search that finds con­ser­vat­ives and lib­er­als have dif­fer­ent physiolo­gic­al re­sponses to the en­vir­on­ment, and even per­ceive the world dif­fer­ently.

At NYU, they’re test­ing that con­clu­sion, and the mag­nets around me are meas­ur­ing the volume of my amy­g­dala. Be­fore my MRI, I took a test aimed at giv­ing me a score on the re­search­ers’ “sys­tem-jus­ti­fic­a­tion scale,” a meas­ure that cor­rel­ates with one com­pon­ent of where a per­son falls on the lib­er­al-to-con­ser­vat­ive spec­trum. People who score high on sys­tem jus­ti­fic­a­tion tend to be pat­ri­ot­ic and de­fend­ers of the status quo. Those who score low tend to be the rebels. So far, with 100 par­ti­cipants, Van Bavel’s group is find­ing mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ences between the brains of high sys­tem-jus­ti­fi­ers and low sys­tem-jus­ti­fi­ers.

Do You Have a Rebel’s Brain? Quiz

(Col­leagues joked that I might want to keep my test res­ults to my­self if I wanted to con­tin­ue work­ing as a non­par­tis­an journ­al­ist in Wash­ing­ton. But — for the re­cord — I’m a lab-cer­ti­fied mod­er­ate: “Yeah, you were right in the heart of the dis­tri­bu­tion, not only in the terms of your sys­tem-jus­ti­fic­a­tion tend­en­cies but also your amy­g­dala volume is very healthy,” Van Bavel tells me the day after, laugh­ing.)

BUT WHEN IT COMES to Amer­ic­an polit­ics, how troubled should we be by any of these find­ings? Amer­ica’s par­tis­an di­vide is as old as Amer­ica’s demo­cracy. And it’s neither feas­ible nor de­sir­able to hope for a na­tion­al con­sensus on every is­sue. Even if we all worked from the same set of facts, and even if we all un­der­stood those facts per­fectly, dif­fer­ences of opin­ion would — and should — re­main. Those opin­ions are not the prob­lem. The trouble is when we’re so blinded by our par­tis­an­ship that it over­rides reas­on — and re­search sug­gests that is hap­pen­ing all the time.

With just a hint of par­tis­an prim­ing, an Ari­zona State Uni­versity re­search­er was able to in­stantly blind Demo­crats to a non­con­tro­ver­sial fact, lead­ing them im­me­di­ately to fail to solve the easi­est of math prob­lems. In the 2010 ex­per­i­ment, polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Mark Ramirez asked sub­jects two sim­il­ar ques­tions. The con­trol group saw this ques­tion: “Would you say that com­pared to 2008, the level of un­em­ploy­ment in this coun­try has got­ten bet­ter, stayed the same, or got­ten worse?” A sep­ar­ate group saw this one: “Would you say that the level of un­em­ploy­ment in this coun­try has got­ten bet­ter, stayed the same, or got­ten worse since Barack Obama was elec­ted Pres­id­ent?”

The key dif­fer­ence between the two: the first men­tions the time peri­od for as­sess­ing un­em­ploy­ment, while the second frames the is­sue around Pres­id­ent Obama. When asked the first ques­tion, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans re­spon­ded sim­il­arly, with most say­ing un­em­ploy­ment had re­mained about the same. But among sub­jects who got the second ques­tion, opin­ions shif­ted along par­tis­an lines: Around 60 per­cent of Demo­crats said un­em­ploy­ment had got­ten bet­ter or some­what bet­ter, and about 75 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said the op­pos­ite.

In fact, the un­em­ploy­ment rate in­creased between Obama’s elec­tion and Ramirez’s study. One can ar­gue about wheth­er this is a fair frame for eval­u­at­ing this or any pres­id­ent’s eco­nom­ic re­cord, but from a raw-num­bers per­spect­ive, the rise in the un­em­ploy­ment rate between 2008 and 2010 is in­dis­put­able.

But even giv­ing Demo­crats that in­form­a­tion did not in­crease the ac­cur­acy of their re­sponses. Ramirez’s study asked some par­ti­cipants the fol­low­ing ques­tion: “The U.S. Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics shows un­em­ploy­ment has in­creased by 4.6 per­cent since 2008. Would you say that the level of un­em­ploy­ment in this coun­try has got­ten bet­ter, stayed the same, or got­ten worse since Barack Obama was elec­ted Pres­id­ent?”

Clearly, the an­swer is in the sen­tence that im­me­di­ately pre­cedes the ques­tion. But the men­tion of Obama launched a par­tis­an men­tal pro­cess that led many astray: Nearly 60 per­cent of Demo­crats said un­em­ploy­ment had lessened since Obama’s elec­tion.

Es­sen­tially, once Demo­crats fo­cused on Obama, most of them largely ig­nored the facts. (About 80 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans got the an­swer right when it was spoon-fed to them, but Re­pub­lic­ans temp­ted to cry vic­tory should be cau­tioned that re­search­ers have found them to be sim­il­arly off base in as­sess­ing the eco­nomy when one of their own is in the Oval Of­fice.)

Ramirez’s ex­per­i­ment also re­veals that our bi­ases don’t com­pletely blind us to in­form­a­tion, however. When he gave Demo­crats the cor­rect un­em­ploy­ment stat­ist­ics, it did not change their an­swers, but it did make them less con­fid­ent in those re­sponses, as re­por­ted in a post-test ques­tion­naire. “It tells me that people might ac­tu­ally be pro­cessing the in­form­a­tion in an un­biased way,” Ramirez says.

The ques­tion, then, is how to amp­li­fy that un­biased pro­cessing to over­come the par­tis­an blind­ness.

BRENDAN NYHAN KNOWS just how hard it is to move that men­tal needle.

“I had the dream of, if we give people the right in­form­a­tion, it’ll make a dif­fer­ence,” says Nyhan, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Dart­mouth and con­trib­ut­or to The New York Times‘s The Up­shot.

But after 15 years of throw­ing facts in people’s faces, Nyhan has found the mat­ter to be much more com­plic­ated. In the early 2000s, he cofoun­ded the fact-check­ing web­site Spin­san­ity to com­bat the “he said, she said” cov­er­age he saw in the me­dia. “I’m very proud of the work we did, but it did il­lus­trate how hard it was to change people’s minds, even among the se­lect group of people who were will­ing to take the time to read a non­par­tis­an fact-check­ing web­site,” Nyhan said.

More re­cently, Nyhan at­temp­ted to de­bunk an ar­gu­ment that is grow­ing in pop­ular­ity but ut­terly lack­ing in sci­entif­ic sup­port: that par­ents shouldn’t have their chil­dren vac­cin­ated.

Nyhan and his col­lab­or­at­ors wanted to con­vince par­ents who were against vac­cin­a­tions that their op­pos­i­tion was un­foun­ded. Work­ing with a large sample of 1,759 par­ents, the team sent them a vari­ety of ma­ter­i­al, in­clud­ing pamph­lets that ex­plained the lack of evid­ence link­ing vac­cin­a­tions with aut­ism, ex­plan­a­tions of the dangers of measles, pho­tos of sick chil­dren whose dis­eases could have been pre­ven­ted, and a story about an in­fant who al­most died from in­fec­tion. Some were ap­peals to pure reas­on; some were ap­peals to pure emo­tion.

Noth­ing worked. One of the in­ter­ven­tions — the pamph­let ex­plain­ing the lack of evid­ence — ac­tu­ally made anti-vac­cin­a­tion par­ents even less in­clined to vac­cin­ate. “Some of the con­clu­sions of that re­search people find pretty de­press­ing,” Nyhan says. “My­self in­cluded.”

In an­oth­er study, Nyhan wanted to see if he could find a real-world way to press ac­tu­al politi­cians to be bet­ter hand­lers of the facts. In the months lead­ing up to the 2012 elec­tion, Nyhan and coau­thor Jason Reifler per­formed an ex­per­i­ment on 1,169 un­wit­ting state le­gis­lat­ors. They wanted to see if fact checks could mo­tiv­ate the politi­cians to be more truth­ful. A third of the le­gis­lat­ors re­ceived a let­ter that con­tained a veiled threat. It read: “Politi­cians who lie put their repu­ta­tions and ca­reers at risk, but only when those lies are ex­posed.” The let­ter then re­minded the politi­cians that Poli­ti­Fact, a fact-check­ing group, op­er­ated in their state. The let­ter clearly im­plied, “Poli­ti­Fact will be watch­ing you.” An­oth­er third of the law­makers re­ceived a let­ter that ex­cluded ref­er­ences to fact check­ing. The last third re­ceived no let­ter.

Throughout the elec­tion cycle, Nyhan and Reifler logged the politi­cians’ Poli­ti­Fact rat­ings (from “true” to “pants on fire”). They also had a re­search as­sist­ant comb through the me­dia cov­er­age of each le­gis­lat­or, search­ing for crit­ic­al stor­ies. The res­ults, pending pub­lic­a­tion in the Amer­ic­an Journ­al of Polit­ic­al Sci­ence, were lim­ited but prom­ising. Over­all, only a very few le­gis­lat­ors — 27 out of 1,169 — were called out on lies. But of those 27, only five had re­ceived the threat­en­ing let­ter — less than a third. That’s reas­on enough to re­search the idea fur­ther. “This study was a first step,” Nyhan says.

One way to help people look past their in­nate par­tis­an­ship? Pay them to do it.

“Hu­man psy­cho­logy isn’t go­ing to change,” he says. “The factors that make people vul­ner­able to mis­in­form­a­tion aren’t go­ing to change. But the in­cent­ives fa­cing elites can change, and we can design in­sti­tu­tions that func­tion bet­ter or worse un­der po­lar­iz­a­tion and that do a bet­ter or worse job at provid­ing in­cent­ives to make ac­cur­ate state­ments.”

THERE’S AN EASI­ER WAY to help people look past their in­nate par­tis­an­ship: Pay them to do it.

A 2013 study out of Prin­ceton found that mon­et­ary in­cent­ives at­ten­u­ate the par­tis­an gap in an­swers to ques­tions about the eco­nomy. The re­search­ers de­signed an ex­per­i­ment sim­il­ar to Ramirez’s un­em­ploy­ment study but with a modi­fic­a­tion: Some par­ti­cipants were plainly in­formed, “We will pay you for an­swer­ing cor­rectly.” All it took was $1 or $2 to dra­mat­ic­ally im­prove the chances of a right an­swer, cut­ting the par­tis­an gap between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in half — half!

Of course, a mass “pay Amer­ic­ans to pay more at­ten­tion to facts” cam­paign isn’t hap­pen­ing. So the ques­tion, then, is how do we get people to be more ob­ject­ive, without throw­ing money at them?

Jimmy Carter dis­covered one an­swer dur­ing the 1978 peace ne­go­ti­ations between Egyp­tian Pres­id­ent An­war Sad­at and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Men­a­chem Be­gin. The talks were on the brink of col­lapsing in their fi­nal hours, and the prime min­is­ter was pre­pared to walk. That’s when Carter dir­ec­ted his sec­ret­ary to find out all the names of Be­gin’s grand­chil­dren. Carter auto­graphed pho­tos for them and per­son­ally gave them to the Is­raeli lead­er. “He had taken a blood oath that he would nev­er dis­mantle an Is­raeli set­tle­ment,” Carter later re­called in an in­ter­view. “He looked at those eight pho­to­graphs and tears began to run down his cheeks — and mine — as he read the names.”

A few minutes later, Be­gin was back at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table. By ap­peal­ing to a non­polit­ic­al idea Be­gin cared about — his fam­ily — Carter was able to bring him to a place where he could bend.

In 1978, Jimmy Carter's appeal to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's sense of family kept Begin at the negotiating table with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty) ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1978, Jimmy Carter’s ap­peal to Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Men­a­chem Be­gin’s sense of fam­ily kept Be­gin at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table with Egyp­tian Pres­id­ent An­war Sad­at. (AP Photo/Bob Daugh­erty)The tech­nique works even when world peace isn’t on the line. Kev­in Bin­ning, a Uni­versity of Pitt­s­burgh psy­cho­lo­gist, used it to re­shape the way par­tis­ans re­acted to a 2008 pres­id­en­tial de­bate.

Just two days be­fore the elec­tion, Bin­ning as­sembled 110 self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats — 60 Rs and 50 Ds — to watch a re­cord­ing of a re­cent de­bate between Obama and Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain. Be­fore they viewed the de­bate, however, one group of par­ti­cipants was giv­en a list of non­polit­ic­al val­ues such as “so­cial skills” and “cre­ativ­ity,” and then asked to write briefly about an in­stance when their own be­ha­vi­or had em­bod­ied one of those val­ues. (The oth­er group also wrote about non­polit­ic­al val­ues, but they were asked to write about how those might be im­port­ant to oth­er people, not about their per­son­al ex­per­i­ences.)

By hav­ing one group write about non­polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ences, Bin­ning wanted to get par­ti­cipants think­ing of them­selves as in­di­vidu­als rather than par­tis­ans. The idea was that af­firm­ing the hu­man iden­tity would make people would feel more re­cept­ive to ideas that didn’t align with their world­view.

It worked. When Bin­ning asked the par­ti­cipants to judge the can­did­ates’ per­form­ances, mem­bers of that group were more likely than those in the oth­er to give a fa­vor­able rat­ing to the op­pos­i­tion can­did­ate.

“It’s not like all of a sud­den I say, ‘Well, yeah, Mc­Cain ac­tu­ally won the de­bate,’ ” he ex­plains, “but we might say, ‘Well, yeah, Obama, I think he did have some good points, but Mc­Cain may have had some oth­er good points as well. I don’t need to just blindly em­brace Obama.’ “

Which seems like the ideal way to con­verse about polit­ics, right? And it wasn’t a one-time ef­fect. Ten days after the elec­tion, Bin­ning asked the Re­pub­lic­ans in the group what type of pres­id­ent they thought Obama would be. Those who had been part of the group that wrote per­son­ally about non­polit­ic­al val­ues be­fore watch­ing the de­bate were sig­ni­fic­antly more op­tim­ist­ic about the Obama pres­id­ency.

So how might we per­suade people to set aside their blind par­tis­an­ship in oth­er con­texts? Let’s start with a for­um in which the stakes are in­fin­itely lower than at the Middle East peace talks but where the par­tis­an vit­ri­ol runs every bit as high: In­ter­net com­ment sec­tions.

Com­ment sec­tions bring out the worst in par­tis­an think­ing: ad hom­inem at­tacks, people who clearly will not be con­vinced of the oth­er side, and stub­born ar­gu­ments where users talk past one an­oth­er, not with each oth­er. But maybe the struc­ture of com­ment sec­tions, rather than the people do­ing the com­ment­ing, has turned them in­to such in­tel­lec­tu­al sew­ers — and maybe a tweak or two at the mar­gins could clean them up.

“You can think of com­ment sec­tions as mini-in­sti­tu­tions,” Nyhan says. “It’s a con­text in which de­bate is hap­pen­ing, and if we can help people be more civil to­ward each oth­er, that might be a pos­it­ive step.”

Talia Stroud is try­ing to take that step. As the dir­ect­or of the En­ga­ging News pro­ject at the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin), she leads a re­search group with the goal of mak­ing the In­ter­net more civil for polit­ics. “It’s un­be­liev­ably dif­fi­cult,” she says.

One way to start, her re­search sug­gests, is to ree­valu­ate the “like” but­ton, a com­mon fea­ture on com­ment threads. In the con­text of a polit­ic­al-news art­icle, “lik­ing” a com­ment or a post could ac­tiv­ate us-versus-them think­ing. “Lik­ing” something means you as­so­ci­ate with it. It re­minds people of their par­tis­an­ship. “So we did a study where we ma­nip­u­lated wheth­er it was a ‘like’ but­ton or a ‘re­spect’ but­ton,” Stroud says. She found that people were more will­ing to ex­press “re­spect” for ar­gu­ments that ran counter to their own.

It’s “not ‘I like what you’re say­ing’ but ‘I re­spect it’ even though I might not agree with you,” she says. “That showed some of the power of really small things and changes that could be eas­ily im­ple­men­ted.”

A MONTH OF SPEAK­ING TO sci­ent­ists about the polit­ic­al brain pro­duced no short­age of de­press­ing con­clu­sions. Their re­search re­veals our brains to be frus­trat­ingly in­ept at ra­tion­al, ob­ject­ive polit­ic­al dis­course. And those rev­el­a­tions come at a time when elec­ted of­fi­cials have strong in­cent­ives to stay the par­tis­an course, and when the people who elect those of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly get­ting their polit­ic­al news through sources pre-tailored to re­in­force their opin­ions.

A scan of the author's brain. (Reena Flores) Reena Flores/National Journal

A scan of the au­thor’s brain. (Reena Flores)But the re­search is more than just an­oth­er ex­plan­a­tion for our cur­rent par­tis­an mor­ass. On bal­ance, it of­fers a bet­ter case for op­tim­ism — about Con­gress, about voters, about your out­spoken ex­trem­ist uncle at Thanks­giv­ing, and about the power of reas­on in demo­cracy. Be­cause the re­search is also re­veal­ing that our brains, while im­per­fect, are sur­pris­ingly flex­ible, and that they can be nudged in a bet­ter dir­ec­tion. Yes, we wall ourselves off from un­ap­peal­ing truths. But when mo­tiv­ated — by money, by the right en­vir­on­ment, by an af­firmed sense of self, by in­sti­tu­tions that value truth and ci­vil­ity — those walls come down.

Out­side of the labor­at­ory, people are put­ting that re­search in­to prac­tice, de­vel­op­ing civic for­ums with our men­tal short­com­ings in mind.

After a dis­pute over a coal plant di­vided Tal­l­a­hassee, Flor­ida, in­to furi­ously par­tis­an camps, Al­lan Katz, then a city com­mis­sion­er, de­cided he had enough. “It was very nasty, it was very con­ten­tious, it was very per­son­al,” Katz re­calls of the 2006 de­bates. “Facts didn’t mat­ter.”

Katz, who is also a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Por­tugal, joined with oth­er com­munity mem­bers to cre­ate the Vil­lage Square, which hosts events where the pub­lic is in­vited to dis­cuss on­go­ing is­sues with ex­perts and act­iv­ists. In­ci­vil­ity and non-truths are not tol­er­ated. Dur­ing de­bates, the Vil­lage Square em­ploys fact check­ers to keep people in line. “So people couldn’t make s—t up,” Katz says. There’s also a ci­vil­ity bell: If people start yelling, the bell is rung to re­mind them of their bet­ter nature.

For the first meet­ing, 175 people showed up. Now the Vil­lage Square is run­ning 20 pro­grams a year in Tal­l­a­hassee, and it has ex­pan­ded in­to St. Peters­burg, Kan­sas City, and Sac­ra­mento. In Tal­l­a­hassee, city of­fi­cials ask the Vil­lage Square to host pub­lic for­ums on di­vis­ive is­sues.

When people con­sider them­selves to be part of the same team, they do a much bet­ter job of drop­ping their com­bat­ive stance and pro­cessing the world through a less par­tis­an lens.

“You’re not try­ing to turn lib­er­als in­to con­ser­vat­ives or vice versa,” Katz says. “But the only way to get people to see the oth­er point of view, even if they don’t agree with it, is to do it in per­son.”

Katz and his fel­low or­gan­izers are re­ly­ing on people find­ing a com­mon hu­man­ity, and in so do­ing, he is play­ing to one of the brain’s great strengths: The same tri­bal cog­nit­ive pro­cesses that make it easy to turn people against one an­oth­er can also be har­nessed to bring them to­geth­er.

When people con­sider them­selves to be part of the same team, be it as Vil­lage Square par­ti­cipants, as fel­low Amer­ic­ans, or even — one might dream — as fel­low mem­bers of Con­gress, they do a much bet­ter job of drop­ping their com­bat­ive stance and pro­cessing the world through a less par­tis­an lens.

And we make those iden­tity jumps all the time, as our brains are wired to let us do.

Some­times, in the middle of his red team/blue team ex­er­cise, Van Bavel will switch a par­ti­cipant from one group to the oth­er. “We say, ‘Listen, there’s been a mis­take, you’re ac­tu­ally on the oth­er team,’ ” he says. “And the mo­ment we do, we com­pletely re­verse their em­pathy. Sud­denly, they care about every­body who is in their new in-group.”

Sud­denly, they see the oth­er side.


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