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The Cognitive and Historic Roots of Our Destructive Modern Polarization
Americans have always disagreed, about a lot. Somehow though, we’ve managed to get along with each other while we do. Why, then, has disagreeing become so nasty, so fierce, not just a battle about ideas but an expression of personal enmity? What are the historic roots of our particularly visceral modern ideological warfare, a competition that has so dramatically closed minds and compelled more narrow views, impeding compromise and progress as we circle the wagons of our tribes and treat those with whom we disagree as dangerous, as a threat, as the enemy?
The angry us-against-them nature of our polarization suggests that the issues we’re fighting over are just surrogates for a more primal conflict. Whether we’re fighting about a current issue like abortion, gun control, climate change, or a more historic conflict, like the centuries-old dispute over the appropriate size and rights of government, the battles have become so mean-spirited and hostile, there must be something more profound at stake than just the issues themselves. Evidence from several fields of social science, and a review of recent American history, offers the following possible explanation.
Research on the theory of Cultural Cognition has found that our views on issues of the day are in fact only reflections of deeper worldviews about the basic way we prefer society to operate. We adopt views on various issues based not just on the facts but so our views align with those of the groups with which we most closely identify. This helps us feel safe, since as social animals we depend on our group, our tribe, literally for our safety and survival. Agreeing with the group maintains us as a protected member in good standing. And if everyone in our group agrees, that social unity increases our group’s influence in the competition with other tribes for setting society’s rules. The more powerful and successful our group is, the safer we feel.
Cultural Cognition identifies four basic groups;
The influence of these underlying worldviews on how we feel about individual issues is profound. Cultural Cognition research has found that these basic group identities are more accurate predictors of our positions on many of the contentious issues of the day than political affiliation, education, religion, or any of the more common demographic identifiers.
By itself, Cultural Cognition does not explain why feelings have grown so fierce and minds so closed, why our disputes have become so nasty and angry and personal. But a related field of social science may add an important piece to the puzzle. Cultural Cognition plays a role in the psychology of risk perception, the way we perceive and respond to potential danger. This critical system helps keep us safe, so it triggers deep and powerful instincts, one of which is to look to our tribal affiliations for a sense of safety when we are worried. The more threatened and unsafe we feel, the stronger these instinctive behaviors become. The more we think the Indians are attacking, the more likely we are to circle the wagons, a black and white us-against-them world in which everybody inside the circle is an ally, and anybody outside is the enemy.
This would explain the fierce combative nature of our tribal polarized society, if in fact people feel more threatened and worried now than they did 30 or 40 years ago, and a fair case can be made that, because of several recent events and trends, they do.
1. The 60s and 70s were a uniquely liberal period in American history, a time in which society moved sharply toward the kind of world preferred by egalitarian-communitarians and away from the kind of society preferred by individualists and hierarchists. The Supreme Court legalized abortion, expanded civil rights, established rights for accused criminals, and suspended the death penalty. Congress and the Johnson administration gave us The Great Society, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society
These sweeping government interventions, breaking down traditional rules in the name of egalitarian fairness and equity and ‘we’re all in this together’ communitarianism, hardly made society ‘great’ to conservative hierarchists or individualists, who prefer a world in which there is less of a role for government, not more. Just how threatening can be seen in the way these liberal changes affected voting patterns in the “red’ parts of the country where the population is predominantly more individualist-hierarchist (politically, more conservative and libertarian). (An relevant aside...The Red State – Blue State distinction, an accepted icon in our modern polarized society, didn’t even begin until NBC commentator Tim Russert popularized it in 2000.) When President Lyndon Johnson said, after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “we (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation”, his remark presciently captured how powerfully threatened people feel when society no longer works the way they want it to and another tribe’s worldview is in control.
But the conservative backlash against the liberal 60s and 70s that helped elect Ronald Reagan and create modern conservatism still did not give us the polarization we suffer from today. Famously, Reagan and liberal Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill could still ‘have a beer together’ at the end of a hard day of political fighting. From the halls of Congress to the streets of America, political disagreements were plenty intense, but they were nowhere near as angry and hostile and closed-minded as they have become. So what else might have made modern times feel more threatening, and fueled the virulent rancor of today??
2. One possible cause might be something as fundamental as how much and how fast the world has changed in the past few decades. Research into the association between basic personality traits and political affiliation by Jonathan Haidt and others has found that, in their personal lives, conservatives tend to be less open to change and more comfortable with things that are familiar and orderly and done ‘the way they’ve always been done’ (note that many conservatives argue that marriage should only be heterosexuals because ‘that’s traditional, the way it’s always been’). Those personal preferences for predictability and stability are certainly consistent with the sort of society hierarchists prefer, a society that is stable and operating under a familiar, orderly, and unchanging traditional status quo.
But if anything has been constant in the past 30 years, it is change. Consider how sweeping and rapid the changes have been in our post-industrial techno/information age, in almost every phase of our lives, and how different our world is today than it was in 1980. For people whose personalities and underlying worldviews prefer more stability and less change, this can’t help but be unsettling. A dynamic world is, after all, an inherently unstable and threatening world to someone who is comfortable when things change less, not more.
(Update, February 5, In a study published today in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers found that people who are more susceptible to social fears tend to adopt more politically conservative views. First author Rose McDermott said,"People who are scared of novelty (my emphasis), uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”)
3. But while change may inherently feel threatening to hierarchists, and the liberal government intervention of the 60s and 70s may feel threatening to individualists, another profound trend in the past few decades has contributed to how threatened people feel in all the Cultural Cognition tribes; the growing income inequality gap in the United States, which began to grow in the late 70’s.
Survey after survey shows that, across all the Cultural Cognition tribes, more and more people feel that they are ‘have-nots’, that their resources are dwindling, that they have less and less control over their lives and their futures. The loss of control – powerlessness – is profoundly threatening. Research into risk perception has found that loss of control is one of the major psychological factors that makes any circumstance feel scarier.
The evidence that the income gap is making people across the population feel powerless, and threatened, can be seen in the similarity between two seemingly disparate groups, the Tea Party movement and the “Occupy” movement. Both are angry at the loss of control over their lives. Tea Party members - mostly individualists and hierarchists - blame government for imposing limits on individual freedom and butting in with ‘socialist’ (egalitarian) rules and regulations. The Occupy movement, mostly communitarians and egalitarians, blame the rich one percent, the powerful who selfishly benefit by using their wealth to enforce the hierarchical status quo. But though each camp blames targets appropriate to their underlying preferences about how society should operate, the cri de coeur of both groups is the same, a sense of losing control, a modern version of “Don’t Tread on Me!”, the motto on an early American colonial flag as people in the colonies began to assert control over their lives. It is interesting that that ‘Don’t Tread on Me” (Gadsden) flag features an image of a coiled rattlesnake, striking. Except to feed, rattlesnakes only strike when they feel threatened.
Certainly other factors are contributing to the severity of our modern divisiveness. Some are themselves manifestations of the way the deeper threats described above fuel the underlying passions of our polarized world;
4. The explosion of lobbyists since the 70’s (a $100 million industry in Washington D.C. in 1976 - $2.5 billion in 2006), and countless new interest groups screaming their narrow passions, has made the combat over issues much more high profile and intense, which leaves the winners more pleased, and losers more angry and threatened when issues aren’t decided their way.
5. The cynical ‘appeal to the base’ realities of modern primary elections is more and more being done by promoting fear of the other candidate or party. And firing up ‘the base’ means inflaming the passions of those true believers who are already more motivated by their inherent tribal identities and affiliations, and readier to circle the wagons.
6. The shallower/faster-paced modern news media focus more than ever on the tribal conflict of politics rather than the ideas of policy. And within the newly democratized online and social media, a new breed of opinion merchants can reach their tribes and preach their polarized version of the truth as never before, especially those who so angrily play directly to the fears of hierarchists and individualists,
The explanation of our modern polarization offered here is an admittedly speculative synthesis based on the interplay of diverse events and trends and elements of human psychology. And precisely because this thesis suggests that our ideological warfare stems from really deep parts of human cognition, it may not help much. The fundamental need for a sense of control in order to feel safe, and our instinct to turn to the tribe for that safety, are so deep, so intimately tied to survival, and so subconscious and beyond our free will, that considering them intellectually is not likely to change these feelings or undo this powerful, innate part of human cognition. Only changing the underlying conditions that trigger these instincts can do that, and that is a much taller order.
But maybe it might help a bit if we can see - and honestly admit - that the arguments we’re having about the issues of the day really aren’t about the facts at all, or about politics, but are really just reflections of more profound aspects of human behavior. Maybe that recognition can help us step back a bit from the hot front lines and begin to understand and respect the honest reasons for the depths of the passions of those with whom we disagree. And perhaps that can provide a basis for starting to temper our own behavior and talk with each other again, rather than at and past each other.
Maybe understanding the historic events and behavioral roots that have produced these venomously angry polarized times can help us let go of at least a little of our own deep instinct to align with the tribe in the name of safety and protection. And maybe, in the name of the very protection that we all seek, this can help us realize how tribalism and ideological impasse make us more vulnerable the large scale risks that threaten us all, challenges that are far too big and complex for any one tribe to solve alone.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.
About 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid slammed into present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, triggering the extinction of dinosaurs. Scientists estimate the impact killed 75 percent of life on Earth. But what's remained more mysterious is how the event shaped the future of plant life, specifically tropical rainforests.
A new study published in Science explores how the so-called bolide impact at the end of the Cretaceous period paved the way for the evolution of our modern rainforests, the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth.
For the study, researchers analyzed thousands of samples of fossil pollen, leaves, and spores collected from various sites across Colombia. The researchers analyzed the samples to determine which types of plants were dominant, the diversity of plant life, and how insects interacted with plants.
All samples dated back to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, some 70 million to 56 million years ago. Back then, the region's climate was mostly humid and hot, as it is today. However, the composition and structure of forests were quite different before the impact, according to the study results.
Tropical jungle with river and sun beam and foggy in the gardenSASITHORN via Adobe Stock
For one, the region's rainforests used to have a roughly equal mix of angiosperms (shrubs and flowering trees) and plants like conifers and ferns. The rainforests also had a more open canopy structure, which allowed more light to reach the forest floor and meant that plants faced less competition for light.
What changed after the asteroid hit? The results suggest the impact and its aftermath led to a 45 percent decrease in plant diversity, a loss from which the region took about 6 million years to recover. But different plants came to replace the old ones, with an increasing proportion of flowering plants sprouting up over the millennia.
"A single historical accident changed the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of tropical rainforests," Carlos Jaramillo, study author and paleopalynologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, told Science News. "The forests that we have today are really the by-product of what happened 66 million years ago."
Today's rainforests are significantly more biodiverse than they were 66 million years ago. One potential reason is that the more densely packed canopy structure of the post-impact era increased competition among plants, "leading to the vertical complexity seen in modern rainforests," the researchers wrote.
The extinction of long-necked, leaf-eating dinosaurs probably helped maintain this closed-canopy structure. Also boosting biodiversity was ash from the impact, which effectively fertilized the soil by adding more phosphorus. This likely benefited flowering plants over the conifers and ferns of the pre-impact era.
In addition to unraveling some of the mysteries about the origins of South America's lush biodiversity, the findings highlight how, even though life finds a way to recover from catastrophe, it can take a long time.