Why We Can’t Talk Politics


Every political opinion piece you post on Facebook seems doomed to sea of shrieking partisans and blustering uncles. Why can’t we just have a civilized discussion?


Our brains aren’t good at seeing politics in philosophical terms, but, according to a study in Cognition, “. . . political affiliation is viewed more like membership in a gang or clique.” Like a biker gang.


Researchers showed a group of participants a video of a calm discussion between eight Republicans and Democrats. Each side had two black individuals and two white individuals. Participants had to watch the discussion and categorise the individuals—which they did, according to political opinion, not race.

According to researchers, “Because we live in a society where race predicts patterns of mutual support—of cooperation and conflict—our mind’s alliance detection system spontaneously assigns people to racial groups and uses those categories when there are not other clues to alliances. For years, psychologists tried many different ways to reduce racial categorization, but all of them failed. They thought it might be irreversible. But prior research at our centre showed that there is one social context that easily and reliably decreases racial categorization. When race no longer predicts coalitional alliances, but other cues do, the tendency to nonconsciously treat individuals as members of racial categories fades, and sometimes disappears.”

Researchers repeated the experiment twice. In one instance, they had each party represented by two young men and two young women. In another, they had each part represented by two twenty-year-olds and two seventy-year-olds.

In that experiment, participants who watched the videotaped discussions tended to categorize the individuals by gender or age—not by political opinion.


Human brains categorize people into coalitions. Researchers expected participants to treat political opinions and race as indicators of coalition, but not age or gender. After all, most groups (tribes, nations, families, clans, etc.) involve people of different genders and ages. Race, on the other hand, might indicate someone who is a part of a different coalition—and political opinions operate under the same logic.

“When people express opinions that reflect the views of different political parties, our minds automatically and spontaneously assign them to rival coalitions,” the researchers write.

The Takeaway

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that perceptions of race are malleable—after all, a person who is a different race than you might end up in your coalition.

The bad news, though, is that it’s pretty hard to discuss differences because you, me, and all of us are more concerned with who’s on what side than with what those sides have to offer. In other words, we care more about whose idea wins than which idea is the best.


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