Hard-Wired to be Partisan?

Have you ever noticed that politicians you disagree with are really stupid? The way they just don’t make any sense, contradict themselves, and constantly exhibit hypocrisy?

Lord knows I have. Yet, at the same time I’ve always believed that politicians are generally good people doing what they honestly think is right (I wouldn’t have become one if I didn’t). Sometimes it’s been difficult to reconcile this apparent contradiction.

As it turns out, there may be a biological explanation. According to a report in the Washington Post, our brains actually do the psychological equivalent of plugging our ears and running into the other room going “na na na I can’t hear you” when, for example, I hear Stephen Harper talk about transparency.

    Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they are. (When people are asked whether they are biased, they say no. But when asked whether they think other people are biased, they say yes.) Partisans who watch presidential debates invariably think their guy won. When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.

The result, the author argues, is that we’re hardwired to be increasingly partisan.

As one blog points out, however, there’s a lot of nurture going on here too. We’re taught “with us or against us,” and “liberal or conservative,” as if there are no other options. We’re taught to only see black and white, never gray.

Likewise, we can unlearn it. At a campaign event early this year a supporter came up to me and told me that “the ideology of the Green Party is pragmatism.” Indeed, that’s one of the things that had attracted me to the party. I really do believe we’ve taken the best of all the other parties and incorporated it into our platform as much as possible. Now that we’re increasingly popular, one of our greatest challenges is to maintain that openmindedness.

Now that us humans know we may be pre-disposed to closemindedness, we can fight against it even more strongly. That may be the most useful application of this report.

I’m doing my part. Why, last week I even found two things that Margaret Wente and I agree on!

One thought on “Hard-Wired to be Partisan?

  1. What you’re describing has probably grown out of the same brain functions that helped humans form tribal systems.

    Check out a book called “Us and Them: Understanding your tribal mind” by David Berreby.

    I plan on picking it up on my next trip to the bookstore.

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