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The Psychology of Politics (and what we can do to cope)

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Our beliefs about politics are personal. We don’t like to discuss our beliefs as a measure of self-protection. Often, for good reason. Here are some things to keep in mind about politics and our interactions with other humans.

Politics.

In civilized company, it’s something we’re not to discuss. It’s divisive, personal and uncomfortable. Yet, it’s implied and assumed in almost everything we do. From the car you drive to your feelings on vaccinations and face masks. It is widely assumed these feelings are related to your political positions. People are more afraid now in 2020 to share political beliefs compared to in 201714.

But why?

Drive a Toyota?

Your a Democrat.

Ford F-150?15

Republican.

Why can’t you believe in universal healthcare and also be republican? Why can’t you support the second amendment and also believe that Obama was the best president of all time? My gut feeling is that you can and many do. Many (and perhaps most) of us may have feelings similar to this. Feelings that don’t allow us to neatly fit into any one category.

The psychology that drives our political persuasion is a complicated proposition. The divides caused in our current societal climate make it relevant to each of our daily lives.

Taboo?

It has long been noted that discussing politics should not take place in civilized company. A recent study from the University College London found that the more differing viewpoints are shared, the more each of us remain cemented in our viewpoint. Further, sharing differing viewpoints causes us to pass judgement on the other1. This may give rise to bias blindspot. This is the belief that we are less biased than the rest of the general population2. The more we discuss politics, the more we become blind to whether our own ideas are well developed or not. By extension, less open to other’s ideas.

So, this old adage seems to hold.

You Believe More of What You Already Know

The concept of motivated reasoning is ever present in our discussion of politics. Motivated Reasoning is the bias to make a decision based on what we already know3. For example, if an individual does not believe racism towards African Americans to be an endemic problem in our society, they may be more likely not accept the ideas inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement.

Are You Good at Math?

The concept of numeracy refers to your ability to reason and apply numerical concepts. Research has show that the greater your ability in this area, the more susceptible you are to letting politics skew your reasoning5. For example, if you are shown data that a product is likely cause health problems, you are far more likely to ignore this fact in regards to a solution in a political context than without.

Further studies suggest a cure for this phenomenon. Scientific curiosity. The more scientifically curious we are, the less likely we are to be swayed into partisan thinking regardless of political affiliation or bias6. Folks who are scientifically curious are more likely to seek out information that challenges their group’s ideas. Paradoxically, the higher the level of numeracy the more likely you are to be politically biased.

Politics Can Hurt

Studies show that having a deeply held belief challenged can truly hurt us emotionally7. Scientists believe this is due to our own personal identities feeling threatened.

Liberal ideas bloom from a prioritization of equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative ideas often favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority5. These are deeply personal ideas. We may find these concepts as intertwined in our own personal identities. Arguing that one concept should be valued above the others can be disturbing to many of us.

You Don’t Know How To Argue

The moral rhetoric of conservatism and liberalism doesn’t seem to be able to sway the other side. A study done in 20158 finds arguments that win us over are not those that will change the hearts and minds of our counterparts in opposition5. The logic finds its fault in that we are more easily swayed by those who already believe 98% of what we believe9,10. Only 9% of liberals and 8% of the conservatives in the study made arguments reflecting the others’ moral principles5,7. Instead, they argued their own moral ideas. The ideas that support why they believe what they believe. Trying to persuade others using the supporting ideas defining our beliefs is not a recommended strategy in bringing others around to our views.

Research also shows that we are more flexible than we think once the feelings of personal attack are removed. In a study, participants received false feedback regarding their political attitudes. For example, the participants’ views were summarized incorrectly often taking the opposite position in political stances. The positions were followed up on later the same day and the following week. Their attitudes were shown to have moved significantly in the direction of the incorrect feedback11.

Fear Works

Often during the election cycle, there is cultural discourse around what could happen if one candidate doesn’t win and visa versa. That is because it works! This is especially true in the context of politics. In one study, it was reported that when white voters were reminded that minorities would be the majority someday, they were more likely to vote for Trump12.

We regress to tribalism when we feel fear13. It becomes in-group/out-group. Who is in our tribe and who do we have to protect ourselves from? As a candidate, President Trump is famously quoted, declaring “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.” 15

So What Now?

Politics are deeply personal to many of us. It is a difficult experience to have a family member or close friend be in opposition to our most cherished and passionate beliefs. With the knowledge outlined here, we can do the following:

1. Don’t Discuss Politics

I won’t discuss politics with my family or friends until after the election. For the most part, its divisive and there is judgement that harms the relationship. We feel personally attacked if our beliefs are questioned.

The more we argue to change the other, the more we stay the same.

I don’t believe my family and friends are bad people, stupid or ignorant for what they believe or who they vote for. My experience is different than theirs. In the spirit of our frontal lobes, I want to preserve the relationship. We’re smart enough to do that, aren’t we?

Facts don’t win hearts and minds.

2. Continuously Question Your Beliefs

Many things that I (and I suspect you) believed ten years ago, I no longer believe. This is due to a continuous questioning and searching for what is really important. Be scientifically curious! You’ll end up believing more of what you know, so continue to upload!

Catch yourself if you buy too much into the “Kool Aid” of one side or the other.

3. Listen

If someone close to you wants to discuss, listen. Try to get to what they are really saying. Why do they prioritize one value or one set of values over another?

References

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonyewing/2020/09/01/9-topics-you-shouldnt-discuss-at-work-based-on-science/#f3a1ece4ef5c
  2. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/03/27/good-news-for-science-bad-news-for-humanity-the-bias-blind-spot-just-replicated-everyone-else-is-more-biased-than-me/
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/motivated-reasoning
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numeracy
  5. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/20/14915076/7-psychological-concepts-explain-trump-politics
  6. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/2/1/14392290/partisan-bias-dan-kahan-curiosity
  7. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589
  8. https://media.wix.com/ugd/2f07d4_546b1b3a850a4271a3b3d2283609e6d9.pdf
  9. https://whoarewe.blog/2020/08/20/the-4-things-you-should-know-about-your-beliefs/
  10. https://jamesclear.com/why-facts-dont-change-minds
  11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-political-opinions-change/
  12. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1368430216677304
  13. https://theconversation.com/the-politics-of-fear-how-fear-goes-tribal-allowing-us-to-be-manipulated-109626
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/08/real-power-is-fear-donald-trump-machiavelli-boucheron
  15. https://thenewswheel.com/do-our-political-parties-influence-which-cars-we-drive/
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BA in Psychology and MBA from Kent State. ENTJ Myers/Briggs and my love language is acts of service. However, I don’t think any of those things should provoke you to read my blog. Hmmm. I want to talk about things we all think about but, can’t freely talk about.

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whatarewe?

BA in Psychology and MBA from Kent State. ENTJ Myers/Briggs and my love language is acts of service. However, I don’t think any of those things should provoke you to read my blog. Hmmm. I want to talk about things we all think about but, can’t freely talk about.

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