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)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)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)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)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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