chess pieces on the board

America has become divided along political lines in a way that it hasn’t been since at least the 1960s. Many of us have therefore not lived during such hyper-partisanship before. How can we negotiate living in a divided America? I sat down with Sarah Durn from Upworthy to talk about the topic—here’s a complete transcript of our interview.

What’s happening in our brains that spurs political division? Why are our brains attracted to the “all-or-none” thinking in politics? Why does compromise conflict with our “other tribal instincts,” as you put it in Can Polarized American Politics Find the Middle Way?

A lot of what plagues human social interactions can be traced to little quirks of how our brains work, such as cognitive biases that we all have to some degree. Generally speaking, these biases have been evolutionarily selected to help us with efficient decision-making, but they can interfere with decisions that require more careful analysis.

Cognitive biases like “binary bias” tend to make us see decisions as consisting of two “black and white” options, rather than deliberating over myriad shades of grey. That can be a helpful and even life-saving “heuristic” when rapid action is needed, but obviously shortcuts our ability to consider other options. Other cognitive biases, like “myside bias” and “confirmation bias” (the tendency to embrace information that supports what we and “our team” already believe) and “implicit bias” (biases about how we see other social groups) conspire with binary bias to reinforce tribal instincts that steer us to see our social world through a lens of “us and them.”

While compromise and altruism have also been evolutionarily favored within families and tribes living communally (“us”), they tend to get discarded when we see others as “them” and when resources are limited. Within an increasingly multi-cultural society like the US, and especially in the setting of modern economic anxiety, our more ingroup tribal instincts can often take over.

In the same piece, you suggest teaching young students about cognitive flexibility. In an ideal world, how would you address students’ use of social media? What would be the “cognitive flexibility” approach to social media for young people?

Cognitive flexibility is about taking on the perspectives of others and fighting against our tendencies for confirmation bias and all or none thinking. Unfortunately, while the internet has provided an unprecedented level of access to information, internet algorithms such as “filter bubbles” can make things worse, but placing us into echo chambers create a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids.” Social media and online anonymity also facilitates behaviors that wouldn’t otherwise occur within face-to-face interactions, similar to how we act when we have “road rage” within the confines of our cars.

Part of what we need to educate everyone—not just young people—about is that the internet is a Wild West of information, misinformation, and deliberate disinformation. We have to teach people to be better consumers of that information and to resist urges to only consume the information that we want to see. Unfortunately, that’s antithetical to the current internet business model.

As far as social media goes, it’s worth breaking out of our echo chambers , exposing ourselves to views that we don’t like. And then, if we choose to interact, to resist the urge to do so looking for a fight or to explain why someone is wrong. That’s where cognitive flexibility comes in. It doesn’t mean that all perspectives are necessarily equally valid, but it does mean that it’s worth the time to try to understand where people with dissenting viewpoints are coming from.

That all said, spending less time socializing online and more time socializing in person—when the pandemic allows—is a much better way to promote cognitive flexibility. There has to be some effort to resist seeing other people as “them” and the best way to achieve that is through genuine social interaction.

How would you suggest all people approach social media with more cognitive flexibility? Especially for people who might not be exposed to real-life interactions with people who have different political opinions? Would following people you disagree with politically on social media be a good starting point?

Whether we’re young or old, we’d do well to expose ourselves to a broader range of perspectives through the informational sources we consume or on social media. But there’s a conundrum with social media. On the one hand, the internet offers a potential avenue to expand our horizons that might not otherwise be easy or possible. But on the other, being online tends to encourage behavior that bypasses the functional etiquette of face-to-face interactions such that if we’re limiting our exposure to those we disagree with to online interactions, we increase the chances of seeing the “road rage” sides of people’s personalities. And that can often just make us more angry and widen polarizing attitudes. As with face-to-face social interactions, we would benefit by finding commonalities with people that aren’t limited to ideological similarities. In other words, we should try to use social media to bond, not to argue.

How do you specifically practice cognitive flexibility in your day-to-day life?

Well, I’m something of a “pluralist” by virtue of my upbringing. I was raised in a multi-racial family and I went to a large public school with a diverse student body. I have family members and friends I know through hobbies that are my political opposites. And so, considering different perspectives is something I’ve been accustomed to throughout my life. In my career as a psychiatrist, I’ve also learned that understanding and validating someone’s subjective experience, including why they believe what they believe, is key to understanding them as people as well as a necessary foundation to help them broaden their perspective. That’s really what cognitive flexibility is about—trying to understand instead of, or before, trying to change people’s minds.

The original version of this article was originally published on Psychology Today by Joe Pierre M.D.

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