What happens when two people see the same event, hear the same words but have very different interpretations of what happened? A divide forms; a common occurrence in our culture right now. This morning was no exception. I listened to a news story on two different networks. Same facts, same video but two very different interpretation of the story. It was like living in alternate universes. This difference in interpretation got me thinking about neuroscience. I know, what a geek!
I read a study that offered some insight as to why there is so much partisan divide. According to the study, our biases have much to do with how we process political events on a neural level. Our political attitudes influence our thinking and how we interpret stories.
The study used functional MRI scans to see what happens in the brains of people when they viewed political or campaign messages. What they found was that the neural responses between conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning study subjects resulted in different interpretations of the same information.
The study went on to say that political messages that use threat-related and moral-emotional language are more likely to divide us. No surprise there. But let’s think about the rhetoric of the past election and how that contributed to what we now see–extreme polarization.
The study also supported the idea that the more we segregate people into groups (think red and blue states), the more we encourage people to cling more tightly to their own safe community. Thus, all the labeling and grouping people into categories that we heard for months divided us even further.
The bottom line is this: We tend to interpret political information in a way that confirms our biases. But the result are more polarization. And this is creating a dangerous climate in our country.
What can we do to stop the divide?
- Rather than divide people into groups, strive to find a common identity. For example, we are Americans vs democrats and republicans; we are Christians vs different denominations. This commonality of identity could potentially bring more people together.
- Related to the above, stop calling people names and assigning them to categories. Lose the labels.
- Stop using words that threaten our safety. Remember, words divide when they threaten our safety or morality. Messaging is important to calming the political culture.
- Be aware of the media you consume. When you only listen only to one perspective, it solidifies your bias against another group. Flip channels, listen to new points of view. Be open to hearing people other than your in group.
- Teach journalists to be journalists, not ideologues. They create division with their words. The way they editorialize and levy blame on politicians, makes them complicit in creating more division. Journalism needs reform.
- Increase your empathy for others and consider the perspective of another person. Be respectful.
- Focus on common goals. For example, what can we do to stop the virus, help small businesses, etc.? I am SOOOO tired of all the blame.
- Stop suppressing differences on college campuses. Universities are supposed to be places of debate, critical thinking and learning. When a divergent view emerges and is snuffed out, this is dangerous. Academia needs to be held accountable for promoting ideology and identity politics rather than truth seeking and true learning.
- Stop lying and know the facts. Fact checking–bring it back. Then report the facts, not personal interpretations. Please stop telling me how to think.
Look, most of us care about the same things. We don’t want our neighborhoods burning, people dying from the virus or our economy ruined. And yes, we do have significant differences as to how to achieve these outcomes. But maybe our path forward is to stop creating unnecessary division and learn to listen without becoming defensive and down right mean.
Congress are you listening?
Media, are you listening?
Universities, are you listening?
It’s time to work toward reconciliation and end the divisions that only hurt us all.