Political partisanship might be a treatable condition.
- People who are intolerant of uncertainty are more likely to hold extreme beliefs, according to previous research.
- A new study shows that this phenomenon seems to apply to both the left and the right.
- The results are promising because they suggest political polarization might be mitigated by presenting information in a more neutral fashion and by helping people better tolerate uncertainty.
In 2020, researchers at Stanford and Brown University published a study outlining how political polarization is accelerating quickly in most developed nations and especially in the U.S. The study aligned with prior research showing that more Americans are reporting stronger negative feelings toward people in political parties other than their own.
That may sound obvious. But what's more mysterious are the drivers of political polarization. Some blame news outlets, the proliferation of social media, economic downturns, or political figures.
A new study proposes a psychological hypothesis: The intolerance of uncertainty drives people to see the world through a partisan lens. In other words, people who see the world in black and white are more vulnerable to ideology.
Intolerance of uncertainty
Although previous research has proposed that uncertainty intolerance drives political polarization, the new study is the first to show that this phenomenon seems to apply to both the left and the right.
"One theory posits that polarization arises because holding extreme political views satisfies a need for certain and stable beliefs about the world," the researchers wrote. "This suggests that intolerance to uncertainty may play an outsized role in shaping polarized perceptions."
The researchers invited 22 liberals and 22 conservatives to participate in a study for which they watched three video segments while fMRI recorded their brain activity. The segments included "a neutrally worded news segment on a politically charged topic [abortion; PBS News], an inflammatory debate segment [police brutality and immigration; 2016 CNN Vice Presidential debate], and a nonpolitical nature video [BBC Earth]."
The participants then answered questions about their understanding of and reactions to the videos, political orientation, and tolerance of uncertainty.
A. Participants underwent fMRI and behavioral testing as part of a larger study on political cognition. B. Participants viewed three videos in a fixed order while undergoing fMRI. C. Participants were clearly divided on political ideology. D. Analytical approach.Baar et al.
As uncertainty-intolerant people watched the inflammatory debate, their fMRI data showed remarkably similar activity in regions of the brain associated with social and emotional processing, including the bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ), right anterior insula (rAI), and precuneus. But there were differences based on party affiliation: Liberals' activity was synched with other liberals, while conservatives matched other conservatives.
"This suggests that uncertainty-intolerant individuals see the political world through a stronger partisan lens, construing a more biased picture of the political reality," the researchers wrote. "Rather than ideology alone, cognitive traits such as intolerance to uncertainty — which interact with ideology to form a polarized perception of the world — may be the linchpin of political polarization."
Hot-button topics don't have to be polarizing
Interestingly, the video segment on abortion didn't produce much neural synchrony.
"Even though abortion is a highly polarizing topic, the neutrally-worded news video yielded much less ideology-driven neural synchrony than the inflammatory debate video, which suggests that polarized perception is not just driven by ideological differences but also by the way polarizing issues are presented," the researchers wrote.
That bit of the study is promising. It suggests that people might not be as inclined to succumb to ideology when information is presented in a more neutral, level-headed fashion.
Is partisanship a treatable mental health condition?
Also encouraging is the overall finding that uncertainty intolerance exacerbates the formation of rigid political beliefs. That's because uncertainty intolerance can theoretically be changed through interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Encouraging people to tolerate more uncertainty may steer them away from seeing the world through a thick ideological lens, which often "hampers bipartisan cooperation and can even undermine the basic principles of democracy," the researchers wrote.
Still, widespread social and economic unrest can understandably make that a difficult task.
"The growing uncertainty caused by large-scale societal events in the past year (e.g. job loss and a global pandemic) may fuel political polarization by sowing rigidly partisan perceptions of the world," the researchers wrote. "Conversely, interventions against polarization may be successful by addressing citizens' sources of worry."
These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.
- Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
- From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
- Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.
We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.
Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.
While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.
Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.
Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.
He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.
Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.
He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.
In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.
Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."
He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.
He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.
He died by suicide.
Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)
Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.
Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images
The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.
Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.
His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.
He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.
Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.
Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.
He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.
Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.
He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.
Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)
One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.
Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.
As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.
He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."
"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.
Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."
There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.
After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.
The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
Without the now-obscure land investment affair, Georgia might have been a "super state."
- Few people today are familiar with the Yazoo Land Scandal, which broke in the mid-1790s.
- Yet it sent shockwaves through American public life, influencing politics, law, and even geography.
- Without it, Georgia could have been a "super state" — and the Trail of Tears might not have happened.
Seven of the original 13 states had extensive territorial claims, mainly toward the west.Credit: Library of Congress via public domain
There are no good old days.
Travel back, say, to the presidency of George Washington himself. Yes, the father of the nation, he who could tell no lie. Even under POTUS #1, there was corruption so venal and egregious that it changed the very map of America. In other words, without the Yazoo Land Scandal, the political geography of the United States might have looked quite different. Yet despite its catchy name and far-reaching consequences, few now remember the affair.
The scandal centered on Georgia, the last holdout in the process of state cessions. Of the original 13 colonies-turned-states, seven had entered into the Union with vague, contested, and often overlapping land claims, mainly in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
The six states without claims did not want to be overshadowed by their expanding neighbors. And the federal government did not want them to get into fights where their claims overlapped. So the U.S. government spent its first few years convincing and cajoling those seven states to abandon their claims. When New York relinquished its claim to Vermont in 1790 (for a mere $30,000), that process was complete. With one exception.
Yazoo Land Fraud
Georgia continued to claim territory all the way to the Mississippi River. For various reasons, the state was loath to give up its interest in these so-called Yazoo Lands, corresponding to the larger part of the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama. Not least because of money. Land developers were eager to acquire large chunks of the country, their guiding principle being: bribe high, pay low.
In 1794, four companies, set up especially for the purpose, paid half a million dollars for about 40 million acres of land. Even taking into account all the bribes — another half a million — that was a ridiculously low amount: four acres to a dollar.
Following the Rescinding Act, Georgia's governor and legislators burn all copies of the Yazoo Act (except one).Credit: New Georgia Encyclopedia via public domain
Infuriated by the deal, Georgians booted out the legislators who had their palms greased to approve the Yazoo Act, by which Georgia had sold all that land on the cheap. In 1795, a new state legislature voted a Rescinding Act, overturning the sale. All extant copies of the original Act were collected and burned at high noon on the grounds of the state capitol under construction, then in Louisville. (One copy escaped destruction — the one sent to President Washington).
The Yazoo hits the fan
But that was far from the end of the unpleasantries. In fact, this is where the actual scandal started. For the land companies did not admit defeat. They continued printing bonds that were being traded and sold on the financial markets of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, raking in tidy profits.
Thousands of bond buyers acquired a stake in the Yazoo Lands. Eventually, though, the market smelled a rat. Investors started to worry: had they thrown away their money on a fraudulent land scheme?
Georgia paid back some of the duped buyers, but unable to handle the escalating scale of the scandal, the state eventually did surrender its claims to the Yazoo Lands to the federal government. Under the so-called Compact of 1802, the U.S. paid Georgia $1.25 million, took over any remaining liability for the Yazoo Lands, and promised to rid Georgia of any remaining Native American land claims.
So, the duped investors could now sue the federal government instead of Georgia. The land companies, for their part, wanted the U.S. to uphold their claims, which they continued to consider legal and valid. Who was right?
In 1810, the case reached the highest court in the land. Pronouncing on Fletcher v. Peck, the Supreme Court ruled that the Rescinding Act was unconstitutional and the original land deals remained legal. For although those deals were corrupt and not in the best interest of Georgians, the contracts were made by the Georgia legislature, which had the authority to do so. The Supreme Court ordered the U.S. government to pay out $4.5 million in compensation to the claimants.
Overview of the four separate Yazoo Act land deals that together constitute 40 million acres of land, sold for just $1 million (including bribes).Credit: New Georgia Encyclopedia via public domain
Yazoo changed the course of American history
Fletcher v. Peck was a landmark case in more ways than one. For the first time ever, the Supreme Court had ruled against a state law, that is, Georgia's Rescinding Act. This established the principle that federal laws were supreme over state laws. The case also firmly established that a legal contract could not be nullified by a later law, which became an important principle in contract law.
The Yazoo Land Scandal had two further, major consequences for the United States. Without the scandal, Georgia might conceivably have managed to hold on to its western lands. This hypothetical Greater Georgia, running from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, would have comprised most or all of the current states of Mississippi and Alabama. That would make it one of America's most populous states, its 20 million inhabitants on par with Florida and New York and surpassed only by Texas (30 million) and California (40 million).
Georgia could also have avoided one of the most ignominious events in its history. In 1830, the federal government fulfilled its promise in the Compact of 1802 to rid Georgia of all extant Native American land claims by the Indian Removal Act. Signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, the Act led to the "Trail of Tears," the forcible removal of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes — about 100,000 people in all — to reservations west of the Mississippi, in what would later become Oklahoma.
Although now largely forgotten, the Yazoo Land Scandal helped shape the territory, laws, and institutions of the early United States. But the affair has another lesson for our times. If there are no good old days, then our current ones perhaps aren't so bad either.
Strange Maps #1079
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New research sheds light on the indoctrination process of radical extremist groups.
- A new study features interviews with 24 former extremists on the radicalization process.
- Financial instability, online propaganda, and reorienting events that caused them to "snap" are leading causes of indoctrination.
- The research team offers potential solutions, including exposure to diverse ideas during childhood and a tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism.
Researchers are continuing to unpack the reasons why extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6. Political scientist Robert Pape hypothesized that answers could be found in increasingly desperate economic conditions—the distance between the wealthiest and everyone else has never been so stark in America. As he dug into the data, however, a different story emerged.
"If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups. [The Capitol insurrectionists] are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."
Pape isn't the only researcher contemplating the path from aggrievement to insurrection. A new study, published by the RAND Corporation, takes a detailed look at the indoctrination process through interviews with white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and their family members and friends.
The researchers set out with a basic set of questions to better understand the radicalization process in the hopes of developing prevention and intervention measures.
- What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
- How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leave their organizations, change their minds, and in some cases join the fight against radicalism?
- What can we do better to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?
After poring over existing research, the team conducted 36 interviews, consisting of 24 former extremists, 10 family members, and two friends. Most of the subjects were active in this millennium, with six only active before the year 2000.
The researchers discovered three major background characteristics that led people to become extremists. (1) Financial instability: In 22 cases, financial instability was key, with seven former extremists claiming this as the main reason they joined an extremist organization. (2) Mental health issues: In 17 cases, overwhelming anger predominated, but PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and depression around physical issues also played a role. (3) Social factors: Marginalization, victimization, and stigmatization were mentioned in 16 cases.
Often, these background characteristics weren't enough. In over half the cases, there was a "reorienting event," that is, a moment that "broke" them, such as being rejected from the military, experiencing long-term unemployment, or enduring a friend's suicide. Propaganda was involved in 22 cases, predominantly through social media but also through books and music. Another factor was direct and indirect recruitment, with indirect recruitment being much more common. In other words, the individuals sought to join extremists groups. Social bonds played a role in 14 cases, including "graduating" from one organization to a more extreme group.
A Proud Boy member is armed with a gun labeled "Zombie Killer" as members and supporters of Patriot Prayer gather in Esther Short Park for a memorial for member Aaron J. Danielson in Vancouver, Washington on September 5, 2020. Credit: Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images
How to help extremists
Why do extremists quit? The most common reasons for leaving are feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Members grew disappointed by the failed promises of leaders or noticed hypocrisy among the ranks. Over half of the individuals were involved in failed deradicalization efforts, however, showing the resilience of these organizations even when family members and friends try to intervene.
The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. An extremist isn't a lost cause. The team lists important steps for helping extremists leave hate groups as well as for preventing people from being seduced in the first place. The researchers' recommendations include:
- Exposure to diverse ideas, especially during childhood
- The development of critical thinking skills
- Participation in prosocial activities that promote positive behaviors and inclusiveness
- Exposure to different racial and cultural groups
- Addressing marginalization more broadly
- A tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism
- Better access to mental health treatment
- Targeted outreach and support for military veterans
The researchers note that this is a small study sample, so further work is necessary. Yet, these interviews offer a starting point for understanding the true scope of the problem. The reasons people become extremists are complex and multivariate. Preventing extremism therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses topics such as childhood education, poverty, mental health, ethnic and racial animosity, and the prevalence of propaganda.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."