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.

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  • 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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U.S. Court Approval of ‘IM GOD’ License Plate is a Victory for Atheists

A federal court ruled that the state of Kentucky was wrong to deny a man's request for a personalized license plate reading "IM GOD." Here's why that's a win against atheist discrimination.

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  • After a three-year legal battle, a federal court last week cleared the way for a man in Kentucky to obtain a customized license plate declaring "IM GOD."
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  • A state/church watchdog organization says the court's decision to approve the plate highlighted the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward religious non-believers.

After a three-year legal battle, a federal court last week cleared the way for a man in Kentucky to obtain a customized license plate declaring "IM GOD" after citing First Amendment rights after the state of Kentucky denied him the plate.

The message could be considered blasphemous and even "obscene or vulgar" as officials at the Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicles initially claimed when they rejected the plate in 2016. (The state later claimed that the plate wasn't approved because it was "not in good taste.") For Hart, a self-described atheist, it was a harmless, humorous message he had the right to display. So he filed a lawsuit.

Free Speech Rights

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The lawsuit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and ACLU, challenged the Transportation Cabinet's denial of Hart's plate, which it argued was based on the state's required restrictions on license plate messages that communicate religious anti-religious, or political viewpoints. Essentially, it said that a license plate qualifies as government speech, so Hart's vanity plate didn't have free speech protections.

But the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Court of Kentucky, which resoundingly ruled in favor of Hart, said that the Commonwealth of Kentucky had gone too far. It concluded that the rule governing such license plates was an unreasonable and impermissible restriction of Hart's First Amendment rights. This was because of the inconsistency of the rule's application, which amounted to the state picking and choosing what kind of messages it wanted on the road regarding the topic of religion.

"The same year Mr. Hart was denied a plate reading 'IM GOD', the Transportation Cabinet approved the contradictory plates 'NOGAS', 'EATGAS', 'VEGAN', and 'BBQ4U' among many others," wrote U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove in his decision. "Under the Transportation Cabinet's logic, the Commonwealth is not only contradicting itself, but spewing nonsense."

"If the Court finds that vanity plates are government speech, then the Court would also be finding that Kentucky has officially endorsed the words 'UDDER', 'BOOGR', 'JUICY', 'W8LOSS' and 'FATA55,'" he also noted, according to WDRB.

Win Against Religious Discrimination

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church organization, the court's decision highlighted the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward religious non-believers.

"As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart's choice of a license plate was pure discrimination," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a press release.

Hart expressed gratitude for the court's ruling against that discrimination.

"I'm thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver," said Hart in FFRF's press release. "There is nothing inappropriate about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation."

This display of religious bias isn't surprising, and it likely isn't the first or only instance. Despite the increased visibility of atheists and the decline in religious beliefs in the United States, uncomfortable attitudes towards atheists are still prevalent. This makes the ruling all the more significant.

It might be just one silly license plate, but this case underlines how government officials are able to censor certain messages like those on license plates and determine whether they are, say, too blasphemous or too religious. Thanks to this ruling, those officials will have to check certain biases they have when giving a state stamp of approval to license plate messages. Aside from atheists or other religious minorities, this court decision is a win for anyone who might want to promote a viewpoint on government property without being censored because certain officials don't like the message.

According to FFRF attorney Pattrick Elliot in a "newsbite" by the nonprofit organization, it is particularly egregious for government workers to censor phrases on the topic of religion because it equates to them endorsing pro-religious or anti-religious messages. Now, thanks to this ruling, the state of Kentucky can't do that. And the rest of the nation has taken note.

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