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Ever wondered why people are so partisan? It's a matter of brain wiring...

I was surprised to read just how many things Americans agree on. Three-quarters want better health care access, even more are pro-abortion, two-thirds want more gun control. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, practically all of them want America to remain the world’s leading military power. Despite this, it seems Americans have never been more polarised politically.

From (much of) Australia, it looks like America has descended into a complete farce. Personally, I find it endlessly amusing to watch Trump supporters justify their belief that this belligerent narcissist is the epitome of everything great about America. But it’s also depressing to see that, in their partisanship and blind faith in conservative values, they are willing to ignore his role in leading a crisis response that has left more Americans dead than World War 1, the Vietnam War and the Korean War combined. Although this has driven some Republicans to bravely change allegiances (just momentarily, mind you), others seem intent on sticking by the man, loyal to their party. Perhaps most disturbing is seeing Christians claim that Trump, a man who has paid off a porn star, promoted sexual assault and been caught in countless number of lies, is chosen by God to lead America back to greatness (ie: their desire to repeal abortion laws). God indeed works in mysterious ways.

Actually, it is the brain that works in mysterious ways.

Mysterious, of course, only in the sense that we are just beginning to unlock its secrets. One such newly discovered mechanism, in relation to politics anyway, is that partisanship seems to be wired into brain circuitry, particularly as it is connected to pre-conceived notions of morality and risk.

Researchers in the US gathered a group of people together, and ascertaining their views on immigration, were able to classify them as politically left or right leaning. They then put them in a brain scanner and showed them a series of videos relating to immigration issues in the US. Despite being shown exactly the same content, the patterns that emerged in the brain were different depending on whether the respondent was left or right leaning (and moreover, the activation patterns in the brain predicted whether they would be left or right leaning).

The difference happens in a part of the brain, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, known to be responsible for analysing narrative content (ie: the bit that makes sense of the story), not in the sensory part of the brain which processes incoming visual or auditory stimulus. The researchers also noted that the differences in brain activity were more pronounced in relation to specific language around morality, emotion and risk. They were able to conclude that how we make meaning from political content has a differing neural basis depending on our political persuasion. Polarised political attitudes, in other words, appear to be a function of differences in brain activity between people.

Or to quote the study, These findings suggest that biased processing in the brain drives divergent interpretations of political information and subsequent attitude polarization.”

So, is there any hope for a less divided future?

Our brain doesn’t come preloaded with beliefs, merely the capacity to believe. It learns from experience, wiring itself up based on the environment it grows up in. And how it’s wired up, influences how we interpret things. Growing up in a conservative household, with conservative values will pre-program you to interpret political content through the lens of these values (and vice versa). This study seems to indicate that these attitudes get wired into the brain, setting up a cognitive bias that influences how political content is processed.

The study provides evidence that particular language exacerbates the bias. Certain language around moral-emotions and risk heightened the difference in neural responses in liberals compared to conservatives. Jonathan Haidt, an American psychologist with a special interest in moral psychology, has eloquently argued that conservatives and liberals have differing moral frameworks, consisting of multidimensional elements. In his book The Righteous Mind, he argues conservative morality has more dimensions than (US) liberal morality. He also argues that unless Democrats understand the language of these moral dimensions and argue their points within the same moral framework, then they will never win over conservatives to the cause of human progress – despite the fact they may well agree on many foundational things. This evidence seems to support his position that we can better reach agreement by thinking about how we present our ideas to the opposing side and framing our arguments about climate change and women’s reproductive rights with language they relate to.

As the world waits to see whether America will change course from Donald Trump, or stick with the chaos they know but interpret as the path to greatness, one thing this study seems to indicate is that a lot of it will come down to how well the narrative was framed, communicated and sold to the voters.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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