With a national election getting closer and closer, I find myself thinking about our political system and the increasingly divisive tone of policy debate today. As I recall, there was a time when Americans could have different political views and still enjoy a cordial, even friendly relationship. Sadly, even our elected representatives seem to be increasingly incapable of being civil to each other, setting a poor example for the rest of us. The “personalization” of American politics has been well-documented, but no one seems to know quite when it started or how we could ever reverse the trend. When this nation elects our next president, one side will win and the other will lose. If the past eight years are any indication, we don’t seem to be very good at winning or losing graciously. Maybe the cause of all this gridlock is a by-product of how most people make a political decision.
Your Voting Decision is Probably More Emotional than Logical
Most people assume that they are making a logical choice in the voting booth, but science tells us something else. A recent study out of McGill University shows that most voting decisions are heavily influenced by our first impressions of the candidate, which become extremely difficult for our brain to dismiss once we made a decision. The lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC) appears to mediate this decision, pulling signals from multiple parts of the brain and combining them into a single decision, which we perceive as rational and evidence-based. Logical thought is produced in our cerebral cortex, but many “decisions” are actually made by the brain stem, the most primitive part of our brain, which regulates unconscious reactions such as the “fight or flight” response. The brain stem is sometimes called “the lizard brain” because there is a similar structure in more primitive creatures like snakes and lizards. It is believed that these brains are not capable of conscious thought, but go through life making pre-programmed reactions to stay alive. Our subconscious determinations of physical attractiveness, trustworthiness and competence usually carry a far greater weight in our decision than a purely rational evaluation of the facts about a candidate.
Your “News” is Self-Fulfilling
In fact, this same behavior was recently discovered in a study of how people get their news. According to the New York Times, Facebook and Twitter have become the primary sources of news for most people. This might not concern me if these and other social media sites had been built to be unbiased, verified sources of news, but that is not the case. What passes for “news” in social media is filtered by what we’ve liked and viewed previously. That means it is highly unlikely that you will even see information about a candidate or position that you haven’t already liked or followed. You will, however, see plenty of criticism, anger, fear and even hatred aimed at people and positions that are in opposition to your own. In 2014, a study revealed that U.S. voters are more polarized than ever before in our history. And my guess is that same study would show an even greater divide if it were conducted today.
We are Hard-Wired to Fear the “Other”
I’ve mentioned before that the brain is a remarkably successful survival tool. Over time, everything that happens in the brain occurs because at one time or another this behavior offered a significant advantage for survival, both of individuals and ultimately of our species. Yet those hard-wired responses aren’t always optimal in our modern world. For example, we have a built-in tendency to fear “the other,” meaning members of any group that is not our own. This could mean fearing people from a different party, a different gender or race, or other differences. If we allow these instinctual, subconscious reactions to govern our behavior, we never really allow ourselves to hear the case for the other side. In fact, we develop a sort of tunnel vision where only the people in my group can be “right” and everyone else must be “wrong.” Why let the facts get in the way of my decision, right?
Once we make that decision on an unconscious level that has nothing to do with logic, we spend a great deal of energy justifying it by selecting only those external facts that support our “logic.” What does it say about us as a people? How have we become so deeply divided that our instinctive reaction to people with different opinions is so instantly, so viscerally negative? Why are we so quick to throw logic and common sense out the window if it doesn’t fit our world view? Why do we seem to care so little about the truth when we are making such an important decision?
I honestly don’t know how to pull out of this terrifying pattern. Neuroscience offers us hope. Through the discovery of brain plasticity we know that it is possible for us to change. In fact, we are continually changing, right up until the moment of death. We can’t help it. Your brain is doing this automatically all the time, in response to new information. We can also consciously rewire our brains, by focusing on the specific concepts, knowledge or behavior that we wish to exhibit. The belief that you can change is a powerful one. But it takes a conscious choice and consistent actions to make the change. Still, we have to try.
In a few months, the U.S. will select a leader who will have to face a host of known and unknown hazards. I think we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to make an effort to use all of our brains – not just the “lizard brain.” And then pray that enough of us have made a conscious choice to save us all.