The cabbage roll epiphany: Our best chance at depolarizing the United States
If ever there was a food that holds a lesson for building bridges in a fractured America, it's the cabbage roll.
- Dr. Kurt Gray of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill unpacks a psychological and political phenomenon: reactive devaluation.
- This negative phenomenon is driving polarization in the U.S.. The good news? It has an equally powerful counterpart: benevolence.
- Understanding how humans create meaning in the world is the key to a more unified and a more rational America.
I hate cabbage rolls and for good reason. They don't taste like much and what they do taste like is bad: boiled cabbage, greasy meat, thin tomato sauce. Cabbage rolls are seldom on the menu at nice restaurants. They do not inspire eyes-closed savoring or 5-star Yelp reviews. Instead, they evoke endless winters, feudal oppression, and culinary fatalism. Despite my loathing of cabbage rolls, I still ate every bite when my grandmother cooked them. It wasn't just that I feared disappointing her, but instead my grandmother's cabbage rolls—bad as they were—somehow tasted better than the sum of their parts.
As I would later reveal by rigorous scientific experimentation, the reason my grandmother's cabbage rolls tasted better was because they were baked with love. "Being baked with love" sounds decidedly unscientific, but studies have revealed how our experience of the world is shaped by social context. Even the most basic of our sensory processes, such as taste and smell, depend on associations and memories. If a passing whiff of shampoo or cologne has ever mentally transported you back to your first love, you know how the world is imbued with meaning.
"The power of perceived malice is not restricted to one side of the aisle but is instead our shared human nature. When Democrats see every one of President Trump's policies as causing them personal pain, they too are guided by perceived animosity."
The meaning of an event is so powerful that it can fundamentally change how it impacts us. One study conducted during the Korean war revealed that many American soldiers declined painkillers after sustaining gruesome gunshot wounds. The reason is because the experience of pain depends on the meaning of wounds. Normally being shot is bad news—it means danger and threat—and so we feel pain, but here it meant salvation. As long as they survived the recovery, being shot meant leaving the battlefield and going back home to the safety of America. Later studies in my own lab reveal that our everyday experience of pain is also shaped by meaning: electric shocks actually hurt less when they seem to be given accidentally, and they hurt more when they seem malicious.
The electric shock study has an important lesson for modern America. If perceived malice can make electric shocks—simple physical events—hurt more, then imagine how it can shape our interpretation of comments on Twitter or governmental policies. If you perceive that someone dislikes you (or your group), then everything they do will be experienced as hurtful, even if they are actually trying to help you.
Consider debates about health care. In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney passed a comprehensive state healthcare reform bill in Massachusetts that mandated insurance coverage and expanded Medicaid. In 2010, President Obama passed "ObamaCare," a comprehensive federal healthcare reform bill that achieved similar goals to "RomneyCare." Despite the similarities between the bills, and despite supporting Romney in 2012, many Republicans remain outraged. Why? There are differences between the bills, but more likely it is because Republicans experienced ObamaCare through the lens of maliciousness, seeing Obama as trying to undermine their rights.
The power of perceived malice is not restricted to one side of the aisle but is instead our shared human nature. When Democrats see every one of President Trump's policies as causing them personal pain, they too are guided by perceived animosity. Social psychologists have a term for a similar phenomenon, reactive devaluation, which is when something seems worse just because your opponent offered it to you. In the original 1988 study, Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of bilateral nuclear arms reduction when they believed the suggestion came from President Reagan but strongly against the exact same policy when it was attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev. This phenomena not only reflects zero sum thinking but is rooted in the idea that your opponent is also your enemy—someone bent on hurting you.
"If my grandmother's love for me can make cabbage rolls more palatable, hopefully understanding that most Americans love their country can make even political disagreement more palatable."
The drivers of political antipathy are deep problems that are not easily fixed, but the solutions are what many scientists, research centers, and global initiatives are studying. Some early findings reveal that exposure to people on the the other side is important. Once you actually talk with political opponents—or better yet—work together with them, people start to recognize their humanity and become more tolerant of disagreement. It is also important to recognize that we all share deep similarities; for example, we may belong to different political opponents, but we are all Americans (especially on the 4th of July). It also helps to stay away from social media, which not only creates echo-chambers, but also rewards people for being outraged. Combining all these elements together into a "tolerance-cocktail" may help address political intolerance.
Although perceived malice can make the world seem more painful, there is a message of hope: Benevolence can also make things feel better. If you know that someone actually cares for you, then you experience events as more positive. In one study, we gave people a piece of candy (the classic American "Tootsie Roll") that (we said) was picked out for them by another person. The fictitious person put in a note with the candy that said either, "Whatever. I don't care. I just picked it randomly," or "I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy." The addition of thoughtfulness made the candy taste significantly better and also sweeter.
The power of benevolence is also why my grandmother's cabbage rolls tasted better than I expected. The ingredients may all have been lackluster, but the intention behind them warmed my taste buds. Studies also reveal that the perception of benevolence can also make electric shocks hurt much less. If you know that someone has your best intentions at heart, then an errant electric shock is easily shrugged off. The same is likely true politically: If you know that a congressperson or senator is ultimately trying to help the country, then pain from policies can be better endured.
If my grandmother's love for me can make cabbage rolls more palatable, hopefully understanding that most Americans love their country can make even political disagreement more palatable.
Dr. Kurt Gray is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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They came from different places and with different ideas, which still resonate today
- Early British settlement of the American colonies came in four distinct waves, from different places.
- Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers had their own ideas of what America should be.
- Some of the cultural fault lines in today's America can be traced back to those differences.
Four 'folkways'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDY2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTAzNzk0OX0.YfBxVdS46dX1eUZhGA_4remlW4YYMIxlZ65wjQ2pyMs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d2108" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2efd697c8c1a31a446da2d4f34168094" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bQuaker pioneer William Penn (center) treating with the Delaware Indians for the purchase of what was to become Pennsylvania." />
Quaker pioneer William Penn (center) treating with the Delaware Indians for the purchase of what was to become Pennsylvania.
Image: frieze by Constantino Brumidi (1865) in the Rotunda of the US Capitol; via Architect of the Capitol - public domain.<p>How many Americans are of British descent? It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Is that because, in an age of hyphenated identities, the founding one still is the default? Or has that identity become so amalgamated that it is now irrelevant? Perhaps the correct answer is: a bit of both. </p><p><span></span>In the 1980 Census, 61.3 million Americans (32%) self-reported British ancestry; most claimed English descent (26%), followed by Scottish (4%), and tiny amounts of Welsh (<1%) and Northern Irish. In the 2010 Census, that figure had dropped to 37.6 million (14%), with just 8% reporting English heritage, 3% Scottish and 2% Scotch-Irish. </p><p>The precipitous drop in self-reported British antecedents corresponds in part with the rise of those who identify as (unhyphenated) 'American', up from 12.4 million (5%) in the 1990 Census to 20.2 million in 2000 (7%) – the largest growth of any ethnic group in the 1990s.</p><p>However, back around the year 1700, about 80% of the population of what was to become the United States were of English (or Welsh) descent, with about 11% of African origin, and the rest being Dutch (4%), Scottish (3%) and other European. The imprint of the British on early American society was overwhelming, diverse and long-lasting: the regional and cultural differences between the settler groups created distinct regional and cultural identities in America.</p><p>That's the argument made by David Fischer, a history professor who in 1989 published a 900-page treatise on early migration to North America called <em><a href="https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/albions-seed-9780195069051" target="_blank">Albion's Seed</a></em>. He identified four British 'folkways' that came over to the other side of the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries (<em>see map</em>), each with their own ideas about the liberty they wanted to find there.<br></p>
From exodus to flight<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDY2NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDg1MzczOX0.-LwTLCpuIub9QhTVWL9vhnd8Jlz9j8aRyt9bePqQPuo/img.png?width=980" id="65f97" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4457df0ca7f66fe87026322bad771da6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bMap showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society." />
Map showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society.
Image: Geni.com<p><strong></strong><strong>1. The Exodus (1629-41)</strong></p><ul> <li>About 21,000 Puritans, migrating from East Anglia to New England.</li><li>These religious fundamentalists believed in 'ordered liberty': everybody had the right to live by their own rules, and the duty to live according to God's law.</li><li>The Puritans were a major influence on the culture of the Northeastern US, especially in terms of business and education.</li></ul><p>These religious fundamentalists are the ones who came over on the Mayflower and gave America Thanksgiving and the self-image of being a 'City on a Hill'. Puritan society was gloomy and repressive: 'exceeding the bounds of moderation' was a punishable offense, and even just 'wasting time' got you into trouble.</p>The other side of the coin: life was very well-ordered. There was little income inequality and crime rates were low. Not only was charity towards poor the rule, being uncharitable was, yes, a punishable offense. Domestic abuse was punished severely. Women had a relatively high degree of equality. And government operated via town assemblies in which all could have a say.<br><br><strong>2. Cavaliers and their Servants (1642-75)</strong><ul><li>Some 45,000 Cavaliers drawn from English nobility and their indentured servants, migrating from the South of England to Virginia and the Lowland South.</li><li>These aristocrats believed in 'hegemonic liberty': dominion over self, and others. In other words: keeping slaves was okay, but domination by others was not.</li><li>The Cavaliers were the foundation of plantation culture in the South. </li></ul><p>The Cavaliers came from the losing side of the Civil War in England, which was now led by the Puritan-inspired Oliver Cromwell. Royalist, Anglican and aristocratic, they brought along with them their indentured servants – more than 75% of the total migration – hoping to recreate in Virginia and environs the socially stratified agrarian society they had left behind.</p><p><span></span>When their servants began dying en masse, they started importing African slaves, laying the groundwork for the race-based slavery system that underpinned the economy of the South until the end of the Civil War.</p><strong>3. The Friends' Migration (1675-1725)</strong><ul><li><strong></strong>Around 23,000 Quakers, migrating from Northern England to the Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania, and later to the Midwest.</li><li>These religious liberals believed in 'reciprocal liberty': granting others the freedoms they wanted for themselves, including the right to vote, to own, to be free, to worship and to a fair trial.</li><li>Quakers had an important impact on the industrial culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions of the US.</li></ul><span></span>Halfway between the fun-hating Puritans and the pleb-hating Cavaliers, the Quakers seem modern and likeable. Believing everybody intrinsically good, they practiced tolerance, pacifism, gender equality and racial harmony. They opposed slavery, the death penalty, and cruelty to animals and children.<p>Quakers replaced a wide range of social acknowledgements according to rank (bows, nods, grovels) by a single, neutral equivalent: the handshake. Quakerism was perhaps one of the first Christian denominations to become indistinguishable from liberal, secular modernity. On the other hand, they were more prudish even than the Puritans. Doctors had a hard time treating Quakers because they described everything from their necks to their waists as their 'stomachs', and everything below as their 'ankles'. </p><p><strong>4. The Flight from Northern Britain (1717-75)</strong></p><ul><li>Some 250,000 'Borderers', migrating from the Anglo-Scottish borderlands and Ulster to the Backcountry of Appalachia.</li><li>These individualists believed in 'natural liberty': freedom to do as one pleases, without interference from society or government.</li><li>Borderers contributed to the rural culture of America's South and the ranch culture of its West. </li></ul><p><span></span>Inhabiting the border regions between Scotland and England, and between protestant settlers and catholic natives in Ireland, the Borderers were used to violence and lawlessness, and to lives that were nasty, brutish and short. </p>It is no coincidence that they ended up in Appalachia, at that time itself a violent border region. It was the kind of world they knew. Borderers were wary of government, prone to violent family feuds and not bothered by traditional morality. By one estimate, in the year 1767, 94% of all 'backcountry' brides were pregnant on their wedding day.<p><span></span>These Borderers were not much beloved by other settler groups in America. One Pennsylvanian writer called them "the scum of two nations". But the Borderers also contributed vigorously to the success of both the American Revolution and America's westward expansion. </p>
'Blue' vs. 'Red'?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDczNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzE5MTc4NH0.EtbfEc9BlGG8R4VlyHr2W7kQ0LzvRdAHRRRlsEI01Pg/img.jpg?width=980" id="ce2a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ba2cd744238f9a08ce63e85be2860528" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War." />
Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War.
Image: lithograph by John L. Magee (1856); public domain.<p>It's tempting, and perhaps not entirely unjustified, to see in these four strains of British 'folkways' the antecedents of some of America's current cultural divides. One might for example see Puritans and Quakers as constituting elements of the 'blue' tribe, while Borderers and Cavaliers could be considered the ancestors of the 'red' tribe.</p><p><span></span>But thinking of America as a "death match between Puritan-Quaker culture and Cavalier-Borderer culture", as one commentator put it, is perhaps a bit too easy. There may be plenty of overlap within either pair, there is also much to distinguish each from the other. And then there are other and subsequent migrations contributing to and complicating the picture.</p><p>Nevertheless, a bit of cultural archeology can be illuminating, if only to see where the bodies are buried.<br></p><p><strong><br></strong></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1049</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a><em>.</em></p>
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