Gray Matter: Using neuroscience to bridge the political divide

In 1970, psychologist David Myers administered a racial bias test to 326 high schoolers and separated them into three groups based on what their survey responses suggested: high, medium or low prejudice. He found that after just two minutes of discussion among each group, the high prejudice group developed even more racist views while the low prejudice group took an increasingly anti-discriminatory stance. Myers’ study illustrates the phenomenon of group polarization: Groups of like-minded people who discuss a topic together will arrive at a conclusion more extreme than the positions they held individually prior to deliberation.

This psychological experiment displays the way political parties become more polarized within information echo chambers, in which repetition and the lack of exposure to alternative views amplifies already existing beliefs. As the 2020 election approaches and candidates from both sides of the aisle attack each other with renewed animosity, it feels like party rifts are deeper than ever. Neuroscience reveals that while polarization is, in fact, extensively rooted in the brain, it can be overcome with communication and compassion.

The neural mechanisms that underly group influence reveal why it is so effective in radicalizing beliefs. A study published in Psychological Science identified oxytocin as a hormone that strengthens in-group identity and makes people less accepting of perceived outsiders. This means that there is a biological factor driving us to conform with a group opinion. 

Furthermore, according to psychologist Sophia Moskalenko, groups promote more extreme views through two types of influences: informational and social. Informational influences provide us with additional evidence to support our claims and strengthen our beliefs in them. Social influences push us to emulate others’ opinions to protect ourselves from fear of judgment. These behavioral mechanisms make sociopolitical discourse a powerful tool in polarizing opinions, and unfortunately, the advent of social media has increased their role in widening the political gap.

As social media becomes a widespread source for information about politics, group polarization can have an even greater scope and impact, and echo chambers become even more prevalent in radicalizing opinions. Before, Americans had to meet in person to talk about politics, and now, they can exchange ideas with millions of people from home with just a few taps of the keyboard or phone screen. If someone shows up in your feed with contradicting opinions, you can easily delete or block them. In this way, social media allows us to curate our own echo chambers that reaffirm our beliefs while minimizing exposure to contradicting ideas.

The most effective way to combat group polarization is by having open, honest conversations with the opposing side. However, this is much easier said than done due to the mischaracterization and miscommunication between people with differing political views. A 2018 study by psychologist Daniel Yudkin revealed a strong connection between an individual’s core and political beliefs — those core beliefs can interfere with empathizing with people who have differing beliefs. 

Yudkin’s survey of more than 8,000 Americans found that conservatives tend to consider personal responsibility a key determinant of individual success, whereas liberals view factors beyond one’s control as facilitators and barriers to success. Consequently, both sides misinterpret the other’s worldview — conservatives see liberals’ emphasis on circumstance as “weakness and self-indulgence,” and liberals think of conservatives’ bootstraps mentality as “chauvinism and victim-blaming.” 

Despite the animosity toward differing ideologies displayed by the participants, Yudkins’ study actually provides hope for healing the bipartisan divide because it revealed that political differences are not as severe as they are perceived to be. Instead, they stem from a lack of understanding and mischaracterization of the other side.

In 1995, psychologist Mona Weissmark organized a facilitated discussion for 20 people in Chicago — half descended from slave owners and the other half descended from slaves. In the four days of discourse that followed, the two groups were able to reconcile their differences by openly confronting feelings of guilt and resentment and listening to each other. Weissmark’s facilitated discussions provide hope that differences of any magnitude can be overcome. 

To overcome group polarization, we must engage in meaningful political discourse with people who have differing views instead of jumping to attack the other side or blocking them from our information feeds entirely.

Jessica He is a senior writing about neuroscience. Her column, “Gray Matter,” runs every other Wednesday.