Psychology Magazine

Lethal Mass Partisanship

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
I think everyone should read this lucid piece by Thomas Edsall, which describes the emerging consensus on the stark biological and evolved psychological roots of the contempt. moral disgust, and aggression that individual members of right and left wing political groups are now directing toward members of the opposing camp, playing out a primitive tribal in-group/out-group dynamic that has ancient evolutionary roots in primate and other social animal behaviors. We seem to be tearing down the fragile political and legal structures, erected by framers of the US constitution, that allowed this country to at least briefly transcend the warring tribes scenario that has prevailed through most of human history.
Some clips of points that I found fascinating:
As partisan hostility deepens, there is one group that might ordinarily be expected to help pull the electorate out of this morass — the most knowledgeable and sophisticated voters... In “Understanding Partisan Cue Receptivity,” Bert N. Bakker and Yphtach Lelkes...find...the most active voters — those notably “high in cognitive resources” — are the most willing to accept policy positions endorsed by their party, and they are doing so not out of principle, but to affirm their identity as a Democrat or Republican. They are expressing “the desire to reach conclusions that are consistent with a valued identity.”
Ironically, reflective citizens, who are sometimes seen as ideal citizens, might be the subset of strong partisan identifiers most likely to fall in line with the party. Since higher levels of cognitive resources and partisan social identity are associated with higher levels of political activism, the effect may be self-reinforcing, wherein political elites polarize the strongly identified and cognitively reflective, who then elect more polarized elites. The democratic dilemma may not be whether low information citizens can learn what they need to know, but whether high information citizens can set aside their partisan predispositions.
And, some quotes from Steven Pinker:
Certainly there is a tribal flavor to political polarization. Men’s testosterone rises or falls on election night, depending on whether their side wins, just as it does on Super Bowl Sunday...the coalitions clustering at the poles are not tribes in the classical anthropological sense. Today’s left- and right-wingers for the most part aren’t inventing myths of shared blood and common ancestry, or binding together in ritual ordeals, or blending in appearance with a common uniform...I think we’re seeing a somewhat different psychological phenomenon: dynamically sorting ourselves into coalitions defined by moralistic condemnation of designated enemies.
From John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska,
...the central political issues of the day revolve around in-group versus out-group, the definition of the in-group, and the unity and security of the in-group...the problem today is that there are so few cross-cutting cleavages. There is only one cleavage and it is the most evolutionarily primal cleavage of them all...people became tribal because the fundamental substantive issues today are about tribe. We are a group-based species.
From Cosmides and Tooby at UC Santa Barbara,
The set of evolved programs that enable and drive warfare and politics strongly overlap with the set of evolved programs that drive human morality. The mapping of these evolved programs and their embedded circuit logic is only in its infancy, and we have only sketched out some of the known or predicted features of our coalitional and moral psychologies. However, progress in this enterprise holds out the possibility of gradually throwing light on some of the darkest areas of human life...everybody benefits from participating in groups of alliances and factions on different scales, and people also benefit by fractionating solidarity in such a way that those on the far side of the boundary seem undesirable, worth spurning, contemptible, deplorable.
And, the most sobering note from NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
I am expecting that America’s political dysfunction and anger will worsen, and will continue to worsen even after Donald Trump leaves the White House....The reasons for my pessimism are that 1) social media gets ever more effective at drowning us in outrage; 2) overall trust in institutions continues to decline, which makes it seem ever more urgent that “our” side take total control; 3) the younger generations have not seen effective political institutions or norms during their lives, and also seem less adept at handling political disagreements; and 4) the norms of campus regarding call-out culture seem to be spreading quickly into business and many other institutions.



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