There’s really no denying that we are in a time of deep political division. With everything from the impeachment proceedings to a contentious election cycle that began as soon as the midterms ended, it seems we may have indeed become the divided republic the American founders feared. Though there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future, there are key psychological forces affecting our political discourse and decision-making that, if not addressed, guarantee our political system will not improve.
Tempting as it might be to just blame politicians and pundits in DC for the rise in tribalism, the truth is that these psychological forces affect us all, regardless of age or background. If we truly want to see change, we must examine how each of us is affected by these forces and learn to break free of them. The consequences of doing so will be far-reaching and impactful.
1. Groupthink and Group Polarization
The old adage that “two heads are better than one” is generally true. However, in groups where unity and conformity are valued above optimal decision-making, groupthink may occur.
Groupthink is when individual critical thinking, personal beliefs, and ideologies are abandoned in favor of whatever the group believes is the best idea. Any doubts or questions about the decision-making process are ignored or quashed in favor of the group’s survival. This is especially true when the group making the decision feels threatened by an extreme “us vs. them” situation, something clearly experienced by both parties in the current political climate. Decisions made under such circumstances are often disastrous.
Closely related to the phenomenon of groupthink is group polarization. Groups are something of a gestalt entity in that they are often greater than the sum of their parts. Being part of a group can intensify our attitudes and beliefs in a phenomenon known as “risky shift.” The group discussion feeds into itself, and we become more extreme and polarized.
Both groupthink and group polarization are commonplace problems in today’s political society. Both sides of the political spectrum have become less and less tolerant of dissent, and both are being pushed further toward extreme beliefs.
We must overcome the dangers of groupthink and group polarization by valuing principle over conformity.
We see this on the left, where even supposed “moderate” candidates like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg support extreme positions on gun control, environmental policy, and health care reform. We see it on the right as free-market and small-government values give way to economic protectionism and the expansion of federal power. In both cases, these attitudes can be observed to not only affect the politicians who make decisions but also their constituents.
Now, conformity is not an inherently bad thing. We all conform to questionable family traditions over the holidays for the sake of peace. However, while ugly Christmas sweaters are harmless fun for those who enjoy them (personally, I don’t get it), this isn’t the same as sacrificing our individuality to the whims of a political group.
Both groupthink and group polarization can be alleviated by “devil’s advocates” and their assertion of individual beliefs and opinions. If we want to break free from political tribalism, we must overcome the dangers of groupthink and group polarization by valuing principle over conformity and by not being afraid to speak out—even if it threatens the unity of our political groups.
2. Dehumanization and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
One of the most unique features of the American political experiment is that our founding documents explicitly lay out the belief that all people are created equal, each possessing intrinsic and inherent value, worth, and dignity. Political discourse over the last decade, however, has largely operated contrary to this ideal. Both sides of the aisle lament this loss of civility in politics, and they’re both right.
Political rhetoric and behavior have served to dehumanize our opponents on all sides of the political spectrum. Phrases like “trumpkin” and “libtard” all dominate the political discussion. Even words like “fascist” and “socialist” have been divorced from their original political and economic meanings, instead becoming labels to affix to our opponents to justify treating them however we want. We behave as if simply holding the wrong political opinion makes one less worthy of the respect and dignity due to all human beings.
Nobody wants to sit down and have a discussion with someone who dehumanizes them.
Such dehumanization thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our behaviors and attitudes toward other people can actually shape them to conform to our preconceived notions. By treating people like they are subhuman, we end up inspiring them to behave in just such a fashion. We thus perceive our initial dehumanization as justified even though we ourselves are part of the problem. This continues the vicious, self-supporting cycle that has dominated American politics over the last decade.
Ameliorating this problem is both simple and difficult. The “golden rule” is well known but rarely practiced, especially in an atmosphere as divisive as our political society. However, it is imperative that we do so not only for the moral purpose of respecting human dignity but also for the practical purpose of allowing actual political discourse and decision-making. Nobody wants to sit down and have a discussion with someone who dehumanizes them.
This is not to say that we cannot and should not disagree with other viewpoints and ideas. However, we must do so in a way that attacks the ideas, not the people, and recognizes the truth of innate human dignity. We should resolve to follow the golden rule even when it is difficult (as it surely will be) and refrain from dehumanizing our political opponents.
3. Heuristic Thinking
Heuristics are “mental shortcuts” that we use in everyday life to conserve our cognitive resources. Ordinarily, heuristics are adaptive, positive strategies; we simply don’t have the time or resources to actively think through daily habits like driving home from work or how to behave in a meeting. When overused or misapplied, however, heuristic thinking can be disastrous, especially in terms of political decision-making and discourse.
One powerful example of heuristic thinking gone wrong in politics is the availability heuristic, where we judge the prevalence of a phenomenon based on how easily we can call it to mind, regardless of whether our mental representation reflects reality. For instance, both violence and crime are at an all-time low and decreasing. The world is getting better.
However, if you look at political rhetoric and decision-making, you wouldn’t think this was the case. Because we can easily call to mind examples of mass violence or dangerous criminals, we think these are commonplace occurrences even though they are not. The result has been that we encounter and treat others not as individuals but as mere representations of abstract stereotypes that are unlikely to reflect reality. Thus, we might make decisions divorced from reality. In politics, these decisions become useless—or even dangerous—legislation, from the “zero tolerance” criminal justice policies pushed by Attorney General Barr, to potentially disastrous red flag legislation.
Another example of maladaptive heuristic thinking is the representativeness heuristic, where we judge people based on how well they conform to our mental representations of stereotypes. This can be seen in the recent “generation wars” between millennials and baby boomers, exemplified in both the “Ok, Boomer” craze and categorizing all millennials as “snowflakes.”
The same principle can be seen in how we treat the abstract notions of “Trump supporters” or “liberals,” to say nothing of ethnic stereotypes. The result has been that we encounter and treat others not as individuals but as mere representations of abstract stereotypes that are unlikely to reflect reality.
Heuristic thinking is good for small, everyday decisions. However, when it comes to politics or people, it utterly divorces us from reality. To make our political society better, we must all engage with those around us in an honest, effortful, and appraising way, not simply continue relying on mental shortcuts.
4. Construal Levels
Any decision we make involves what are known as construal levels. Construal levels refer to the psychological distance between us and the concepts in play, with distant concepts thought of abstractly and idealistically (the “high” construal level) and close concepts thought of concretely and practically (the “low” construal level). While the high construal level can be helpful for coming up with an idea or setting a goal, the low construal level is equally necessary for making and implementing any sort of decision.
Modern political discourse and decision-making are entirely wrapped up in the high construal level. The border wall? Mexico will pay for it! Don’t ask how that will happen or why it hasn’t already. The trade war? That will help us “beat” China, although what it means to “beat” China has never really been defined, and we’ve already begun to see the negative consequences of protectionist economic policy. Free health care and universal basic income for all? We’ll figure it out when we get there, even if these ideas are economically impossible.
It’s all well and good to discuss abstractions, but without a plan to realize them, nothing will be accomplished.
However, the best example might be the Green New Deal, which contained not a single shred of practical considerations for its implementation and exemplifies high construal level thinking without any consideration of practicality.
Again, the solution to such problems is both simple and difficult. In such an idealism-driven political society, we dismiss “naysayers” who question the practical implications of political plans. However, in all political discourse and decision-making, we must consider both construal levels. It’s necessary to consider high construal level ideas when setting goals. Even the lauded idea of “small government” is a high construal level goal since it is incredibly distant from our current reality.
However, without a willingness to think on the low construal level—to think about the practicality and feasibility of plans and goals, including what might potentially go wrong—no good decision can be made. It’s all well and good to discuss abstractions, but without a plan to realize them, nothing will be accomplished. We must not only think about high construal level ideals but also low construal level realities, and we must demand that our government and representatives do the same.
Psychological reactance is what occurs when we are told we cannot do a thing and, resentful of a perceived threat to our freedom, proceed to do precisely what we were warned against. As with the aforementioned phenomena, reactance is widely observable across the political spectrum.
When we are told that perhaps mocking and attacking children is inappropriate behavior (especially from adults in positions of social or political power), the immediate response is to simply double-down and attack them harder, be it Greta Thunberg or Barron Trump.
When words like “retard” are condemned for being insensitive toward the disabled, the immediate reaction is to protest in the name of “freedom of speech,” disregarding the fact that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. We must instead focus on furthering and defending our own beliefs and values in a measured and principle-driven way.When protesters bring up the systematic problems of police brutality, the response isn’t to thoughtfully consider these issues but rather to celebrate the police as an institution even more unreservedly and even threaten those who protest them.
Of course, when our actual freedoms are threatened, there is nothing wrong with defending them. Indeed, it is right and necessary that we do so. But when we base our entire political personas on “triggering” the other side, it is neither conducive to discourse nor likely to produce any sort of change.
Rather than basing our political identities on ideas and values, we instead become pure reactionaries and often break the laws of good taste (to say nothing of the golden rule). Rather than basing our political discourse and decision-making on pure reactance to our opposition, we must instead focus on furthering and defending our own beliefs and values in a measured and principle-driven way.
Breaking Free from Tribalism
Breaking free from political tribalism does not have a top-down solution. We cannot change the behavior of the “big people” in Washington, DC, nor can we change the behavior of others around us.
However, we can resolve to change our own political attitudes and behaviors. All we can do is choose to work against the psychological forces impeding our political discourse and decision-making. If we choose to do so, the effects will not be confined to ourselves alone but will also have far-reaching effects all the way to the top.
We have a choice before us: to continue the patterns of thought and behavior that have brought us to such a contentious political situation or to make a change. After all, in a representative government like ours, it is not ultimately up to politicians or pundits but to “we the people” to, and please pardon the truism, “be the change we want to see in the world.”
After all, the most basic level of society is the individual, and if we can practice individual self-governance, these changes will have a greater impact than any one of us could imagine. If we truly want to address the deep political divisions, partisanship, and tribalism, that sort of fix must begin with ourselves.