With President’s Day around the corner for those of us in the U.S., I find myself thinking about our political system and the increasingly divisive tone of political 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 today. The “personalization” of American politics has been well-documented, but no seems to know quite where 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 do that very well. Maybe neuroscience can give us a few ideas for collaborating with people with whom we disagree.

Most people assume that they are making a logical choice in the voting booth, but neuroscience 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. In reality, our subconscious determinations of physical attractiveness, trustworthiness and competence seem to have far greater weight in arriving at our overall decision than a purely rational evaluation of the facts about a candidate.

In fact, this same behavior was recently discovered in a study of how people get their news. According to the New York Times, Facebook has become the number one source of news for most people. However, this news is filtered by what we’ve liked and viewed previously. That means it is highly unlikely that you will even see an article about a candidate you haven’t already liked, followed or at least viewed.

So if Facebook and the brain are both filtering our world based on highly subjective criteria, how can we ever know if we’ve made the best decision? All we can know for sure is that our decision has been highly influenced by everything that we are – our upbringing, our culture, our education, our social status, our physical health, our emotional state and many other factors. Our conscious thoughts and our decision-making process actually play a very small role in the final decision.

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell identified this nearly instantaneous unconscious decision-making process. Once we make that decision on an unconscious level, we spend our energy justifying it by selecting only those external facts that support our “logic.”

So we have no one to blame for the increasing divide between our two major political parties. It is burned deeply into our DNA. 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?

I honestly don’t know. But neuroscience does offer use hope. Through the concept 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 specific concepts, knowledge or behavior that we wish to enforce.

So instead of letting our political positions be the result of an unconscious auto-pilot, let’s make a pact to pay more attention to opinions that may be different from our own and to be a little wary if our minds seem a bit too strongly “made up.”