4 science-based strategies to tame angry political debate and encourage tolerance

Featured

“Climate change is a hoax,” my cousin said during a family birthday party. “I saw on Twitter it’s just a way to get people to buy expensive electric cars.” I sighed while thinking, “How can he be so misinformed?” Indeed, what I wanted to say was, “Good grief, social media lies are all you read.”

No doubt my cousin thought the same of me, when I said Republican senators are too afraid of the president to do what’s right. Not wanting to create a scene, we let each other’s statements slide by in icy silence.

As a psychology professor and clinical psychologist in private practice, I know my relationship with my cousin would have improved if we could have discussed those issues in a nonthreatening way. If only.

I’m not alone in my frustration – and my desire for change. A December 2019 poll conducted by Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos showed more than nine out of 10 Americans said it’s time to reduce divisiveness, which they believe is exacerbated by government leaders and social media. People want to stop the animosity and relate to one another again. But how?

Based on my knowledge of psychological research, here are four approaches you can use to overcome divisiveness.

Don’t isolate yourself from people with different points of view.

1. Connect

Avoiding interactions with people who have different opinions perpetuates divisiveness. Risk connecting with these people. Relate through activities you enjoy such as volunteering, joining a “Meetup” group or starting a book club. You could even invite people from various backgrounds to a potluck dinner at your home.

What activities like these share is a common goal, which creates a cooperative atmosphere instead of a competitive one. Research demonstrates that contact alone does not ensure cooperative interaction. To truly connect, you both have to demonstrate respect while working on a common goal.

2. Find common ground

It’s important to remember the basic need to feel secure is shared by all people. Focusing on commonalities can lead to a deeper understanding of another person, while focusing on differences will lead to arguments.

An argument involves two people asserting one is right while the other is wrong. But what gets lost in this scenario is the common ground of the problem they both are trying to wrestle with.

Restate the problem. Together, brainstorm all the different ways it might be solved.

For example, a person might say the only way to protect America from terrorism is to sharply limit immigration. Instead of challenging that immigration must be limited, you can restate the problem – then ask if there might be ways to deal with terrorism besides limiting immigration. You might find some solutions you agree upon.

3. Communicate

Listen more and talk less. Show the other person you have understood what they said before jumping in with your thoughts.

Everyone wants to be acknowledged as heard. If they are not, they will continue to press their point. So, to stop an argument in its tracks, start listening and reflect back what you’ve heard.

You’ve probably experienced listening for only what you want to hear – and possibly found yourself not listening at all. You may just be waiting to give a knee-jerk reaction to what the other person is saying.

To listen well, you need to first open your ears, eyes and heart. Examine your biases so you can hear without judgment. Suspend your self-interest and stay with what the other person is saying. Then tell that person what you heard.

Showing empathy does not mean you necessarily agree with what the other person is saying. It just means you’re reassuring the other person you have listened before making your own statement.

Now, it’s time for you to share where you’re coming from. Take a deep breath. Cool down and reassess your thoughts so you can give a considered response, instead of a quick reaction. You can disagree without being disrespectful.

Communication using the above process leads to a conversation instead of an argument and builds a more trusting relationship. It takes only one of you to create an empathetic conversation, as empathy begets empathy. The more compassionate understanding you give, the more you get.

Be skeptical and learn to recognize when you are being manipulated by divisive content.

4. Learn to critically evaluate media

Don’t passively accept all that you see and hear. There are too many sources of distorted facts, unsupported opinions and outright lies available today. Critically evaluate what is being presented by considering the source and fact-checking the content.

Above all, if the message seems fake, don’t share it. Google has a fact-checking tool, and First Draft News has tools to evaluate false content and the way it is disseminated. You can also consult Full Fact and CUNY’s fact-checking guide. So, when you hear or see someone sharing fake information, don’t challenge it. Instead, show how to fact check the information.

Avoid anger and hate in the content you consume. Evaluate whether it is seeking to pit you against another person or group. Follow media that supports empathy, compassion and understanding. But don’t get lulled into a bubble by reading only content you agree with. Help children and teens, not only to critically evaluate media, but also to become kind and caring toward people who are different from them. Teach tolerance by showing tolerance. Yes, you are only one person trying to create change, but your influence does matter.

As for me, the next time I see my cousin, I plan to listen with empathy; let him know I understand his point of view; and try to identify a common goal around which we can share our perspectives.

(The above article was first posted in The Conversation.)

How to Stay Connected on Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day Approaching, Try These Tips To Make This Day A Special One.

Does Valentine’s Day make you wish you had someone to love (and to love you)? Don’t despair—there are ways to dispel loneliness during the Valentine’s Day hype, and help get you out doing something you enjoy. When you are deeply involved in an activity with other people you have a common goal and interests that connect you. Frequent exposure to others increases their liking of you, so besides having an enjoyable time, you might find a new love by engaging in some of the following suggestions from Beverly B. Palmer, Ph.D., professor and clinical psychologist.

  • Volunteer

Think about who you would get the most satisfaction from helping.  Would it be children, the homeless, migrants, senior citizens?  Then, search online for where you might be most needed. VolunteerMatch.organd CreateTheGood.org are two sites that list volunteer opportunities in your community. Not only would you be making a positive change, you would be meeting others with similar values.

  • Foster or Adopt a Pet

You may find a pet to be a loving companion. A cat can give you comfort as it curls up on your lap, while a dog will get you out of your house on a daily basis where you will meet neighbors and other doggie lovers at the park. You then instantly have something in common with those around you and something to talk about. Petting a dog or cat releases the “love hormone”, oxytocin, in both the person’s and pet’s brains, according to a group of Swedish researchers.  Oxytocin creates a feeling of being loved and insures a strong bond, so your pet can help you feel less lonely.  Contact your local pet adoption group or borrow a friend’s pet before taking the plunge.

  • Join a Special Interest Group

If you have a hobby you could join a group of people who share that interest. Every city has an abundance of special interest groups, professional association functions, alumni events, and civic organization meetings. Find group activities on websites such as meetup.com. These may involve hiking, cooking, developing a new skill, discussing a topic, or participating in a sport.

  • Sign up for a Course or Fitness Center’s Program

If you have a regularly scheduled event where you are with other people, you already have a way not to be lonely during the upcoming Valentine’s Day.  Seek out adult classes that interest you at your local university, or join a gym.  Both men and women are attracted to the other’s sweat, reports a Swiss study, which explains why health clubs are such popular hunting grounds! Don’t forget to reach out and connect to others by asking for advice or noticing when someone needs help.  Don’t wait for someone to find you—smile and start talking with someone who is engaged in the activity with you.

  • Read a Good Book

Visit your library or bookstore. Selecting a book from browsing the shelves gives you an opportunity to interact with others before going home to read. Escape to another world through an engrossing fiction.  Learn something new through a helpful nonfiction book, such as Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life, which will give you even more suggestions on how to avoid the Valentine’s Day blues.

Why Are We So Divided and What Can We Do about It? Psychological Research Has Some Clues

Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  And these divisions are becoming more and more entrenched.  So, why is this occurring? 

Similarity Brings Comfort

Psychologists say it is easiest to stick with people who we see as similar to ourselves. It requires more effort to step outside our bubble.  So, we tend to associate with people who look or think like ourselves.

We then we take the similarity even one step further by assuming that people who are similar to us on one characteristic are similar to us on many other characteristics.  For example, if a person belongs to the same political party or religion that we do, we might think they also like the same activities that we do. Thus, we have a strong tendency to categorize people with a broad brush.

We also want assurances that we will be liked before we attempt to interact with someone else.  People who are similar to us tend to be liked by us and tend to like us more so than is the case with dissimilar people.  Again, then, we isolate ourselves from the challenge of being with dissimilar people.  The process of seeing our group as the best group is known as ingroup bias.

Ingroup Bias is Hardwired

Viewing others in the same way we view ourselves is a function of a part of our brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex.  Other parts of our brain also predispose us to ingroup bias.

We see the same behaviors of people not in our group as different from those of people in our group. A group of psychologists presented Democrats and Republicans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004 with an initial statement (e.g., a politician said they were going to lower taxes) from a presidential candidate of their own or another political group.  Participants were subsequently shown a statement which involved an action which contradicted the initial statement (e.g., the politician is now not lowering taxes). Participants perceived less contradiction between the initial statement and the action that contradicted the statement from their own group leader. This biased processing of information from ingroup versus outgroup leaders showed up as activation in certain areas of the brain.

When feeling threatened by an outgroup member, another part of our brain is activated.  Australian psychologists asked Non-Muslim participants to decide to either shoot a photograph of a Muslim (outgroup member) or a Non-Muslim (ingroup member) who, in the photograph, was holding a gun. When confronted by the photograph of the outgroup member with a gun and while deciding to shoot the photograph of this member, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex of the Non-Muslim participant was activated. But it was not activated when deciding whether to shoot the photograph of the ingroup member.

Ingroup Bias is Amplified by Social Media

Social media increases our isolation from others. We tend to subscribe to popular media which only confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  And when we are not exposed to outgroup members, our ingroup bias is intensified.

Stereotypes of outgroup members run rampant. We even then begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to immigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as not only making us uncomfortable but as being a threat. 

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality.  Yes, some people from our group as well as some people outside our group are, at best misinformed, and even terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us in terms of stereotypes.

See Others as Individuals, Not as Members of a Group

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  We cannot just stay in our safe shell.  We have to actively seek out people who are not similar to us. We will then see others as individuals, not just as members of an outgroup.

One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the United States.  Another way is for positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own to be presented in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

There are many benefits to taking the risk of being with people different from ourselves.  One benefit is changing attitudes toward outgroup members.  The change in attitudes reduces conflict, which benefits one’s well being as well as society.

Another benefit of interacting with outgroup members is self-expansion. Self-expansion means we develop a wider view of who we are and of what we are able to do.  We are motivated to expand ourselves.  And one of the best ways to do so is to engage in activities with members of an outgroup.  We begin to incorporate some of the positive characteristics and resources of others into our view of our self.

Yes, we need to reach out and speak to people other than ourselves.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

REFERENCES

Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S.C. & Aron. E.N. (2004) Including others in the self, European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 101-132, DOI: 10.1080/10463280440000008

Domínguez D, J.F., van Nunspeet,F., Gupta, A., Eres, R., Louis, W.R., Decety, J., & Molenberghs, P. (2018). Lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is modulated by group membership in situations of justified and unjustified violence, Social Neuroscience, 13 (6), 739-755. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1392342

Hampton, A.J., Fisher Boyd, A.N., & Sprecher, S. (2019). You’re like me and I like you: Mediators of the similarity-liking link assessed before and after a getting-acquainted social interaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36 (7), 2221-2224. DOI:10.1177/0265407518790411

Locke, K.D., Craig, T., Baik, K.D., Gohil, K.(2012). Binds and bounds of communion: effects of interpersonal values on assumed similarity of self and others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 103(5), 879-897.

Molenberghs, P., Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights from fMRI studies into ingroup bias. Frontiers in Psychology, 9 (1868), 1-12. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01868 

Paolini, S., Wright, S., Dys-Steenbergen, O., & Favara, I.. (2016). Self‐Expansion and intergroup contact: Expectancies and motives to self‐expand lead to greater interest in outgroup contact and more positive intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues. 72, 450-471. DOI: 10.1111/josi.12176.

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., and Hamann, S. (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an fMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 US presidential election. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1947–1958. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947

Click To Tweet

The Science Behind Why We Find Certain People Attractive

A (Short) Guide To Better Boundaries

I was honored to contribute to this article which appeared on Page 5 of the Wellness Section in the Sunday New York Times on October 30th. boundriesblog

%d bloggers like this: