The Personal and the Political: A Recipe to Polarisation

New media platforms such as Facebook are swamped with political statements encompassing analyses from news websites about the ruling or the opposition party, political memes for, or against majority, or minority groups, and personal opinions regarding the manner in which the country should be run.The comments section for these posts  is a battleground with people often resorting to personal insults and extreme anger. What incites these very personal responses to the political?

According to a recent study, neuroscientists at the University of Southern California suggest that the answer lies in the way our brains are programmed. The study found that when one’s political beliefs are challenged, the area in the brain responsible for emotional responses to threats (the amygdala) tends to get activated. This does not happen when their non-political beliefs are challenged. For example, people were more flexible when the belief “Albert Einstein is the greatest physicist of the 20th century” was challenged as compared to statements about military funding or gun ownership in the USA.

Beliefs that are a component of one’s social identity are the most difficult to change. It is evident that people prefer to maintain existing beliefs. A model of belief maintenance argues that when faced with information that challenges one’s beliefs, people experience negative emotions that rise from the conflict between the importance that they place on their current beliefs and the apprehension created by the new information. In an effort to reduce the conflict and negative emotions, people may attempt to negotiate a way to minimise the effect of the counter-evidence: they might discount the source, form opposing arguments, socially validate their original attitude, or filter out new information. For example, they might claim that the source the dissenting information comes from is dubious, they might argue against the logic of the counter-arguments, justify their stance by emphasising the support it has in their community, or choose to pay attention only to information they agree with. The extent to which they would be willing to go to rationalise their stance depends largely on the personal significance the belief in question holds for them.

This sense of personal significance to a political ideology or set of beliefs stems from an us vs. them understanding of the world. A 2012  study titled “Affect, Not Ideology” contended that the strong opposition to political statements that one does not agree with stems more from an “in-group” vs. “out-group” perspective. People who share similar political convictions become an “in-group” and actively work to create a stronger sense of community by focusing on similarities in the in-group and the differences as compared to the out-group. The fact that there is limited interaction between people who identify with opposing political ideologies further makes the partisan lines stronger. This is facilitated by the politically homogenous communities that have been created in neighborhoods as well as on social media.

When we access information on social media, algorithms curate our online behavioural patterns. These algorithms then present us with information that we are likely to agree with or prefer and filters out the information that does not match our preferences. This often compromises on a balance of the kind of ideas we engage with and we make ourselves a more vulnerable target for inaccurate or biased information. As Ricardo Gandour, a professor at Columbia University observes, “… through social media, professional and other qualified news is mixed with un-checked information and opinions. Rumours and gossip get in the flow.” He also noted this tended to increase political polarisation, and warned: “people may be losing the skills to differentiate information from opinion.” We only accept information that concurs with our existing beliefs and disregard the rest. Hence, if we come across information in favour of our existing political beliefs, we accept it and if it is against our set of beliefs, we discredit it. This minimises differences within supporters of a common ideology and maximises differences with supporters of an opposing ideology. This further causes political polarisation.

Although political polarisation isn’t new, the level of antagonism has risen over the past twenty years.  The survey conducted by Pew Research Centre (USA) found that there is a surge in the number of people who hold negative views about other political ideologies. Further, many go to the extent of saying that the political parties which they do not support threaten the nation’s well-being, found that the strong dislike for the opposite political ideology and its supporters borders on alarm for a large number of people. Since the USA has only two political parties (the Democratic Party and the Republican Party), polarisation is a lot more evident. According to the same survey, 36% of the supporters of the Republican Party (a.k.a. conservatives) said that the policies of the other party threaten the well-being of the nation and 27% of the supporters of the Democratic Party (a.k.a. liberals) said the same about the Republican Party.

This polarisation shares a strong correlation with personal choices and behaviours: Liberals would prefer living in cities while conservatives would choose smaller towns; liberals are likelier to emphasise on racial and ethnic diversity while conservatives place importance on religious faith. 73% of liberals would emphasise the role of art museums and theatres in communities while conservatives think they should be one of the lowest priorities. Thus, these varied preferences are likely to lead to polarisation and homogenous neighbourhoods.

However, any effective solution can only be attained by collective and collaborative action. And collaboration can only be achieved when there exists the possibility of negotiation. If the divide along political lines continues its current growth trend, there is little hope for reform. It is essential to understand that our political inclinations do not entirely define our sense of identity. By acknowledging the various factors that are at play when we feel the need to give a strong emotional response to counter statements, we take a step towards being better listeners. Only by understanding the consequences of the mental walls we build can we break them down.

Sharvari Karandikar