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May 29, 2015

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Why do political disagreements get nasty while others don’t?

May 29, 2015
Courtesy of UCSB
and World Science staff

Beat­les ver­sus Roll­ing Stones. Iron­man ver­sus the In­cred­i­ble Hulk. Deep dish ver­sus thin crust. Such dif­fer­ences of opin­ion among family and friends rarely end in se­ri­ous squab­bles. Let the con­versa­t­ion turn to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, how­ev­er, and lively dis­agree­ments can be­come down­right ug­ly.

Why is it that even among the peo­ple we care about most, dif­fer­ences in po­lit­i­cal af­filia­t­ion of­ten re­sult in awk­ward­ness and dis­com­fort, and pushed far enough, can feel like a threat to the en­tire rela­t­ion­ship?

A group of so­cial sci­en­tists say an­swers may lie in their new re­search, which seeks to un­der­stand how and why the hu­man brain un­con­sciously cat­e­go­rizes po­lit­i­cal par­ties. 

“We found that dif­fer­ences in po­lit­i­cal opin­ions en­gage the brain’s evolved cir­cuit­ry for track­ing al­liances and coali­tions,” said Da­vid Pie­tras­zew­ski, lead au­thor of a pa­per pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Cog­ni­tion.

“When peo­ple ex­press opin­ions that re­flect the views of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal par­ties, our minds au­to­mat­ic­ally and spon­ta­ne­ously as­sign them to ri­val coali­tions,” added Pie­tras­zew­ski, who was a re­searcher the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Bar­ba­ra San­ta Bar­ba­ra dur­ing the time of the study and is now at the at the Max Planck In­sti­tute in Ger­ma­ny.

“As far as our brains are con­cerned, po­lit­i­cal af­filia­t­ion is viewed more like mem­ber­ship in a gang or clique than as a dis­pas­sion­ate phil­o­soph­i­cal stance,” he added.

What’s more, as this evolved sys­tem notes and re­trieves in­forma­t­ion about an in­di­vid­u­al’s po­lit­i­cal al­liances, it be­gins to ig­nore oth­er pos­si­ble cues about who is al­lied with whom, he said. And one of those cues it ig­nores is race. This oc­curs “when race does not pre­dict al­liances, but oth­er cues do,” said Pie­tras­zew­ski. “It’s a tell­tale sign that our minds are treat­ing po­lit­i­cal opin­ions as mark­ers of mem­ber­ship in a coali­tion.”

“Our brains are not de­signed to at­tend to race,” said John Tooby, pro­fes­sor of an­thro­po­l­ogy at the uni­vers­ity, co-director of its Cen­ter for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary Psy­chol­o­gy and a co-au­thor of the pa­per.

“In­stead, they are de­signed to at­tend to coali­tion—and race gets pick­ed up only as long as it pre­dicts who is al­lied with whom. This is why suc­cess­ful politi­cians like Ben­ja­min Dis­rae­li, Ar­nold Schwarzeneg­ger or Barack Obama need not be eth­nic­ally the same as the ma­jor­ity of their sup­port­ers. Co­a­li­tion is the real coin of the evolved mind, not race.”

Hu­mans come from an ev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry that in­clud­ed con­flict among groups or fac­tions, Tooby added, and peo­ple needed to know, were a dis­pute to break out, which in­di­vid­u­als line up with “us” and which with “them.” 

“While the world is full of so­cial cat­e­gories like ath­letes, plumbers, the eld­erly or nail-biters, only a few cat­e­gories are in­ter­preted by the mind as coali­tion­s—sets of in­di­vid­u­als in­clined to act to­geth­er, and sup­port each oth­er against ri­vals,” he said. “In the small so­cial world of our an­ces­tors, the po­lit­i­cal was per­son­al.”

For our hunter-gatherer an­ces­tors, a wrong guess about who is al­lied with whom would have had very real con­se­quenc­es, said psy­chol­o­gist Le­da Cos­mides at the uni­vers­ity, co-director of the cen­ter and al­so an au­thor of the pa­per. “This is why we hy­poth­e­sized that nat­u­ral se­lec­tion de­signed the brain to au­to­mat­ic­ally con­struct so­cial maps of lo­cal coali­tions out of clues that imply or pre­dict al­liance.”

The re­search­ers showed par­ti­ci­pants in the study a calm and civ­i­lized dis­cus­sion be­tween eight Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats. Each side was com­posed of two black and two white peo­ple, and all es­poused opin­ions typ­i­cal for their re­spec­tive par­ties. Par­ti­ci­pants were then shown ex­cerpts from the con­versa­t­ion and were asked to in­di­cate which in­di­vid­ual ex­pressed each opin­ion. The re­sults showed that par­ti­ci­pants spon­ta­ne­ously cat­e­go­rized speak­ers by their po­lit­i­cal par­ty, and this caused a de­crease in ra­cial cat­e­gor­iz­a­tion.

“Be­cause we live in a so­ci­e­ty where race pre­dicts pat­terns of mu­tu­al sup­port—of coop­era­t­ion and con­flict—our mind’s al­li­ance de­tec­tion sys­tem spon­ta­ne­ously as­signs peo­ple to ra­cial groups and uses those cat­e­gories when there are not oth­er clues to al­liances,” said Cos­mides. 

“For years, psy­chol­o­gists tried many dif­fer­ent ways to re­duce ra­cial cat­e­gor­iz­a­tion, but all of them failed. They thought it might be ir­re­vers­i­ble. But pri­or re­search at our cen­ter showed that there is one so­cial con­text that easily and re­liably de­creases ra­cial cat­e­gor­iz­a­tion. When race no long­er pre­dicts co­a­li­tiona al­liances, but oth­er cues do, the ten­den­cy to non­con­sciously treat in­di­vid­u­als as mem­bers of ra­cial cat­e­gories fades, and some­times dis­ap­pears.”

On the oth­er hand, cat­e­gor­iz­a­tion by age and gen­der does­n’t ap­pear to fade in this way, the sci­en­tists said—the brain ap­par­ently treats these as less sep­a­rate is­sues from al­li­ance cat­e­gories. These re­sults fol­low “from the hy­poth­e­sis that our minds treat both race and pol­i­tics as al­li­ance cues,” but not gen­der or age, Pie­tras­zew­ski said.

This ex­plains the heat­ed dis­cus­sions and of­ten-uncomfortable barbs that arise when hol­i­day din­ner con­versa­t­ions veer in­to po­lit­i­cal wa­ters. “They are not a dis­pas­sion­ate con­sid­era­t­ion of al­ter­na­tive views,” said Cos­mides. “The views are flags planted, mark­ing your co­a­li­tional al­liances.”

The bad news is that once con­structed, it’s easy for our minds to frame al­li­ance cat­e­gories like race and pol­i­tics in terms of an “us ver­sus them” men­tal­ity, the re­search­ers ex­plained. But the good news is that these re­sults show that race and pol­i­tics are in­trin­sic­ally flex­i­ble cat­e­gories as far as our minds are con­cerned. “Our pre­vi­ous re­search—and our pol­i­tics stu­dy—show that it is not impos­si­ble to change these “us ver­sus them” per­cep­tions, even for some­thing like race,” Pie­tras­zew­ski said. “What is re­quired is coop­era­t­ion that cross-cuts the pre­vi­ous bound­a­ry, and the more the bet­ter. Re­duc­ing ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion or po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iz­a­tion will be no eas­i­er or harder than chang­ing pat­terns of coop­era­t­ion.

“The ex­pe­ri­men­tal work shows that it is pos­si­ble to make these di­vi­sions fade,” he con­tin­ued. “How to make this hap­pen is not a mys­tery any­more.”


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Beatles versus Rolling Stones. Ironman versus the Incredible Hulk. Deep dish versus thin crust. Such differences of opinion among family and friends rarely end in serious squabbles. Let the conversation turn to political parties, however, and lively disagreements can become downright ugly. Why is it that even among the people we care about most, differences in political affiliation often result in awkwardness and discomfort, and pushed far enough, can feel like a threat to the entire relationship? A group of social scientists say answers may lie in their new research, which seeks to understand how and why the human brain unconsciously categorizes political parties. “We found that differences in political opinions engage the brain’s evolved circuitry for tracking alliances and coalitions,” said David Pietraszewski, lead author of a paper published online in the journal Cognition. “When people express opinions that reflect the views of different political parties, our minds automatically and spontaneously assign them to rival coalitions,” added Pietraszewski, who was a researcher the University of California Barbara Santa Barbara during the time of the study and is now at the at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “As far as our brains are concerned, political affiliation is viewed more like membership in a gang or clique than as a dispassionate philosophical stance,” he added. What’s more, as this evolved system notes and retrieves information about an individual’s political alliances, it begins to ignore other possible cues about who is allied with whom, he said. And one of those cues it ignores is race. This occurs “when race does not predict alliances, but other cues do,” said Pietraszewski. “It’s a telltale sign that our minds are treating political opinions as markers of membership in a coalition.” “Our brains are not designed to attend to race,” said John Tooby, professor of anthropology at the university, co-director of its Center for Evolutionary Psychology and a co-author of the paper. “Instead, they are designed to attend to coalition—and race gets picked up only as long as it predicts who is allied with whom. This is why successful politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Barack Obama need not be ethnically the same as the majority of their supporters. Coalition is the real coin of the evolved mind, not race.” Humans come from an evolutionary history that included conflict among groups or factions, Tooby added, and people needed to know, were a dispute to break out, which individuals line up with “us” and which with “them.” “While the world is full of social categories like athletes, plumbers, the elderly or nail-biters, only a few categories are interpreted by the mind as coalitions—sets of individuals inclined to act together, and support each other against rivals,” he said. “In the small social world of our ancestors, the political was personal.” For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a wrong guess about who is allied with whom would have had very real consequences, said psychologist Leda Cosmides at the university, co-director of the center and also an author of the paper. “This is why we hypothesized that natural selection designed the brain to automatically construct social maps of local coalitions out of clues that imply or predict alliance.” The researchers showed participants in the study a calm and civilized discussion between eight Republicans and Democrats. Each side was composed of two black and two white people, and all espoused opinions typical for their respective parties. Participants were then shown excerpts from the conversation and were asked to indicate which individual expressed each opinion. The results showed that participants spontaneously categorized speakers by their political party, and this caused a decrease in racial categorization. “Because we live in a society where race predicts patterns of mutual support—of cooperation and conflict—our mind’s alliance detection system spontaneously assigns people to racial groups and uses those categories when there are not other clues to alliances,” said Cosmides. “For years, psychologists tried many different ways to reduce racial categorization, but all of them failed. They thought it might be irreversible. But prior research at our center showed that there is one social context that easily and reliably decreases racial categorization. When race no longer predicts coalitional alliances, but other cues do, the tendency to nonconsciously treat individuals as members of racial categories fades, and sometimes disappears.” On the other hand, categorization by age and gender doesn’t appear to fade in this way, the scientists said—the brain apparently treats these as less separate issues from alliance categories. These results follow “from the hypothesis that our minds treat both race and politics as alliance cues,” but not gender or age, Pietraszewski said. This explains the heated discussions and often-uncomfortable barbs that arise when holiday dinner conversations veer into political waters. “They are not a dispassionate consideration of alternative views,” said Cosmides. “The views are flags planted, marking your coalitional alliances.” The bad news is that once constructed, it’s easy for our minds to frame alliance categories like race and politics in terms of an “us versus them” mentality, the researchers explained. But the good news is that these results show that race and politics are intrinsically flexible categories as far as our minds are concerned. “Our previous research—and our politics study—show that it is not impossible to change these “us versus them” perceptions, even for something like race,” Pietraszewski said. “What is required is cooperation that cross-cuts the previous boundary, and the more the better. Reducing racial discrimination or political polarization will be no easier or harder than changing patterns of cooperation. “The experimental work shows that it is possible to make these divisions fade,” he continued. “How to make this happen is not a mystery anymore.”