Why We Polarize
It is hard to not notice the heightened tensions in our country, especially after November 8th. We have seen groups of people being called “deplorables”, “snowflakes”, “racists”, “crybabies”… and the list goes on. With each insult, the other side fights back even stronger. When caught up in this dynamic with a close friend or family member the only option seems to be to fight back or cut them off completely.
I’d like to offer a different path—a middle path.
This is a three-part piece on disrupting the polarized “us vs. them” dynamic.
- First we will explore what contributes to this dynamic;
- Second, how to detect windows of opportunity in the conversation to shift out of us vs. them;
- And third, how to actually disrupt the polarized position.
But before we get into why we polarize we need to first understand who we are.
We Are Tribal
In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that humans are instinctually inclined to form into groups and favor members of those groups. This is known as “in-group bias”. We are inclined to believe that our group is superior to other groups. This can be seen at any team sports game amongst the fans or between political parties.
Experiments like the famous Stanford Prison Experiment reveal how quickly people, once divided into groups, begin to discriminate. This can happen even when we are arbitrarily assigned to groups, as seen in the Iowan 3rd grade school teacher’s experiment of blue eyed vs. brown eyed kids in 1968. The other group (the outgroup) is seen as “less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent” than members of the in-group.
What It Means to be Tribal
Belonging to a group can give us a sense of security in who we are. We call this “sense of who we are” an identity, and when that identity connects us to a group that is called a social identity.
For example, someone who prefers Apple products may identify with others who have an emotional connection to their MacBook or iPhone. In addition, they may share a whole range of other ideas and behaviors. Check out this infographic on Mac vs. PC or the popular Mac vs. PC commercials. Notice the traits and attributes for each group. The PC person is dressed more conservatively, looks older, and is stiff in how he speaks. The Mac person is dressed more casually, looks younger, and is more relaxed with how he speaks. Here we have representations—prototypes—of the PC social identity group and the Mac social identity group.
Some social identities are more important to us than others and can be a significant aspect of our sense of self or self-concept. For some being an “American” is a huge part of who they are, whereas for others it ranks lower than say, being a “vegan” or a “world citizen”.
Some of our identities are also context-dependent. Having worked as a web designer, being a “Mac Person” was important amongst other designers and many shunned those that used a PC. Being a “Mac person” or “PC person” in that context was an identity that could be very important to a sense of self. However, outside of work that identity may fade to the background.
So how do we get so polarized?
#1 Sense of Self Under Threat (Yours included!)
As mentioned above, some groups more closely represent how we see ourselves in the world—our sense of self. When this happens we can be very protective of that group identity, because an attack on the group feels like an attack on our personal sense of self.
This can be experienced when watching political debates—when someone criticizes either liberals or conservatives. We might find, too, that the word “American” is part of our identity. When someone criticizes Americans we might feel like they are talking directly about us—even when they are critiquing only some very specific aspect of the American identity.
- Which of your identities do you defend more than others? Gender? Race? Being a parent?
- Which phone do you use? What would it say about you if you switched brands?
#2 Uncertainty Can Lead to Zealotry
We live in uncertain times.
“Changes in technology, the nature of work, and the way we communicate and relate to one another dovetail with environmental and cultural uncertainty, “limitless” choice and moral relativity to create a world in which people can be overwhelmed about who they are and how they should behave.” Michael A. Hogg
For some uncertainty can be exhilarating. For others it can produce anxiety and feel threatening. Social psychologists have found that the latter seek to reduce uncertainty by striving to identify with well-structured groups with clearly defined boundaries. “Zealotry and ideological conviction may provide precisely the kind of solace that people go to extremes to protect and promote.” 
- Which ideologies do you subscribe to?
- When someone critiques your viewpoints what happens?
- When do you feel more or less of a desire to claim that you are part of a group?
#3 In-group vs Out-group
Where another person stands in regards to your group—in or out—can impact how you react to their statements.
Example: I was sharing with a Chinese-American friend of mine that there was a daycare center with an outdoor playground right below my office window. Since the office didn’t have AC, during the summer I needed to have the window open. I commented to my friend that there was an older Chinese woman (gauging by her accent) who would yell at the kids on the playground when they were misbehaving. Her voice was so sharp that I would get a headache. In an attempt to understand, I asked my friend if the woman’s behavior was something that came from her culture, as the other adults at the center weren’t as audible. My friend got immediately upset—and then relaxed. “If I didn’t know you had an Asian parent I would find that insulting,” she said. Then she added with a smile, “And, yeah, some Chinese aunties can really yell. They’re very effective.”
Being mixed-heritage I was part of the Asian group, though a minority in it. Had I been 100% white my friend would probably have been insulted. We tend to be more open minded to differences of opinion expressed by people who are part of our in-group.
- Notice when you are part of the in-group in conversations. Or part of the out-group.
- How can you tell?
- When you hang around people who share similar viewpoints notice your anxiety level. Does it go down?
#4 Our Brains Are Hijacked
Neuroscience has come a long way with the use of fMRIs (functional MRIs). We now know, through direct observation, that when we feel under threat blood flows out of our prefrontal cortex (logical center) and into our limbic system (instinctual, reactive center). This has been called a Limbic Hijack or an Amygdala Hijack. When this happens, we are cut off from the logic and planning abilities held in our prefrontal cortex and become much more reactive—ready for “fight or flight”—and less ready to have a calm, rational discussion.
When this happens we also see the situation in binary terms, contributing to the dynamic of “us versus them”. We have a hard time seeing more than two viewpoints. We feel the need to latch onto one of those viewpoints and fight, or cut people off, to defend it.
- Notice the next time you feel angry during a conversation.
- What do you notice about your body?
- Where are you tense? What is your stance?
- Are you aware of your body at all or just how wrong the other person is?
- Try taking a few deep breaths with long exhales to activate your parasympathetic system and bring your prefrontal cortex back online.
Next: How to Detect Us vs. Them
Hogg, M. A. (2014). From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Sage, 23(5), 338-342. doi:10.1177/0963721414540168
Hogg, M. A. (2009). Managing Self-Uncertainty Through Group Identification. Psychological Inquiry, 20(4), 221-224. doi:10.1080/10478400903333452
Wilson, E. O. (2013). The social conquest of earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp.