Political Brawls–Lessons in Futility?
By Laurel Hughes, Psy.D.
Emotions run high as the hottest election of the century approaches. Non-stop tug of war dominates the media, reds, and blues duking it out. Set opinions cling tightly and pull mightily at their chunk of partisan rope. All dig in for the duration, with little to be gained. Of course, one side will eventually win. But for this type of battle, all winning determines is whether you fall on your face or land on your behind.
Gut brains are calling these shots, not our logical brains. It’s fight or flight chemistry putting “winning” above all else. That’s how survival works, for primitive existence. Losing could mean loss of food, family, property, territory, or our very lives. Likewise, stress chemistry encourages us to bond and work together to meet common goals. This is how large threats like groups of foreign invaders are met.
But what does this primitive infusion of adrenalin and oxytocin do for today’s heavy-duty political stress? Instead of leading us to solutions, we get something called “groupthink:”
· We identify “good guys” and “bad guys,” everyone either for us or against us.
· We defend whatever “good guys,” say, regardless of whether the information or ideas pass scrutiny.
· We gather forces and fire upon the “bad guys,” no matter the merit of their ideas.
· When the opposing side counterattacks, our defensiveness, and aggression feel justified.
· The winner is “right,” ideologies ingrained, and facts and logic now irrelevant. The story’s over.
Benefits found are emotional, rather than practical. We experience the feelings of certainty, safety, and “being right” that accompany jointly held rigid beliefs. We also gain a source of social support for difficult times. But for the election divisiveness, these groupthink perks come with a heavy price:
· Fanning the flames of discord, creating more stress and conflict
· Missing common ground where paths to answers may lie
· Injuring, perhaps destroying important sources of social support
· Alienating those we must work with to find solutions and make decisions
· Progress becoming extraordinarily difficult and conflict-ridden
· Another four years of “my way or the highway” back and forth, no matter who wins the election
Groupthink is a tough nut to crack. Fortunately, our more sophisticated reasoning can step in any time—but only if we actively choose it. First, by noting we’ve succumbed:
· Viewing ideas or people as all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, vilified or deified
· Socializing only with those who are like-minded
· Becoming emotional and defensive, rather than listening to alternative points of view
· Looking only for merits of the favored side and faults of whatever opposes it
· Rationalizing away information if it counters group beliefs or supports opposing views
· Difficulty identifying solid logic or facts behind some “good guy” beliefs
· Engaging in social behaviors we later regret
The next steps depend upon the type of groupthink factor we see. Do certain reasoning practices need reexamination and repair? Does how we interact with those who disagree need adjustment? Can we find ways to cope with strong opinions and emotions without using groupthink practices?
Often awareness alone brings change. If not, reams of self-help information are available for adjusting just about any factor that gets in the way. We need only be willing to look.
What better time to practice new skills than the election debate? After all, this too will one day pass. And then, we will need all the cohesiveness we can muster to find solutions for today’s challenges.
The Next Generation
Today’s new kids on the block, too, will rise to the occasion. The post-WWII young adults found their answers; my generation’s found ours. I can attest to the fact that overwhelming differences and obstacles need not be insurmountable. At times they provide starting points for major change. Solution-finding required our patience, as well as thinking outside the box without disrespecting the box. A similar journey lies ahead for today’s young adults.
And the biggest issue they now face? The divisiveness itself. Rarely is any social problem resolved simply by holding firm to an extreme position. That is why big protests alone do not produce change. In fact, they can even make those of the opposing side double down.
Why is the “my way or the highway” attitude so pervasive? It gets us nowhere. That’s not rocket science. How was common sense so drastically waylaid? Most importantly, how do we move beyond this, and use our best thinking to overcome divisive attitudes? To do so, we first must understand what’s happening within ourselves.
About the Author
Laurel Hughes, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in disaster mental health, is author of “The Cogjam Effect – and the Path to Healing Divisive Community and Fractured Science,”