The Dumbbell Effect of Political Polarization
Americans must rise above confirmation bias, groupthink, and tribalism
Political polarization is nothing new in America, but recent studies show that a greater number of people are migrating further toward the extreme ends of the spectrum. Instead of a bell curve, the distribution of Americans along the political spectrum these days looks more like a dumbbell.
A key reason why we are shepherding ourselves to opposite poles lies in how we attain information. Psychologists have established that the brain is prone to confirmation bias, which is a subconscious tendency to summarily accept or reject evidence based on our beliefs. Studies of confirmation bias reveal that we fail to give sufficient attention to arguments that are discordant with our preconceived notions.
Psychologist Drew Westen at Emory University found that when subjects were told something positive about their preferred politician, the reward center of the brain is activated. But when presented with examples of their party leaders contradicting themselves, analytical parts of the brain went silent. As summarized by Westen, “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.”
Social media, partisan news outlets, and echo chambers make it easy to build a case that supports your beliefs. The challenge is to make a genuine attempt to understand the opposition. Investigating the nuances of complex problems and evaluating the evidence objectively requires intense effort, open-mindedness, and humility. These are difficult but necessary steps in the march toward truth. We need to be vigilant of our biases and ask questions to guide our beliefs rather than have our beliefs guide our questions.
A malignant outgrowth of confirmation bias is groupthink. Whether in cyberspace or the real world, our brain tends to surround itself with like-minded brains. As these tribes assemble, a Darwinian type of peer pressure emerges when there are slight differences of opinion. Soon, each member is vying to advance in the hierarchy of their tribe by exerting the most rigid and extreme version of their opinion.