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Psychology of polarization

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In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay quiet about my observations of politics through a psychological lens.

I watched the hearings with other members of my dorm community. I remember the tension in the room. I felt it thousands of miles from where Ford and Kavanaugh sat to deliver their sides of the story. I shared the sentiments that many of my dormmates expressed: how brave Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was in stepping into the spotlight as a survivor of sexual assault, and how Brett Kavanaugh seemed to treat the hearings as an annoyance, a small barrier on his way to his rightfully “deserved” seat on the Supreme Court. I felt a wave of relief sweep across me. My peers say things the same way I did.

This is a feeling that is hard to attain back home in Central California, where most cities lean right. The dominating political ideology often makes it difficult for me to feel comfortable expressing my relatively liberal political stances on a wide spread of issues. Though it seems easier for liberals who’ve grown up in liberal areas to dismiss conservative ideologies, I’ve found it more difficult not to consider reflexively what conservatives see, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. While I sat frustrated at the reality of the situation, I could almost easily imagine what people back home would be saying in response to the hearings. They would dismiss Ford’s testimony as a liberal agenda and sympathize with Kavanaugh’s family for having to go through the strife of uncertainty regarding whether they would get to see their beloved Brett on the Supreme Court.

Later that day, I decided to do what I haven’t since arriving at Stanford: I tuned into Fox News to see whether or not I was right. Sure enough, it seemed that conservatives saw a much different hearing than liberals. But seeing something about this comparison made me uneasy. I began to compare liberal and conservative news coverage for the Kavanaugh trials, and then for gun control, and then for Kaepernick.

The parallels were astonishing. Both sides used sound clips that would fuel their audience’s contempt for the other side, and both sides dismissed the other side’s point of view. The comment sections were perhaps the most alarming, with conservative users very eerily dehumanizing liberals in a similar way that liberals seemed to condemn conservatives. They were attacking the people, not the ideas held by the people .

This increase in political polarization is not news. However, it is interesting to note that confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, might be responsible for the two different stories being told by the media. And cognitive dissonance — the mental discomfort one feels when a core belief is being challenged — might be at the core of the polarization of politics. People often elect to catch up on politics through media that confirm their political views, and their views consequently go unchallenged. However, sound bites meant to elicit emotion push their views just enough to challenge the mind. In an effort to ease the discomfort, the mind takes the easiest route: It dismisses any possibility that the other side should be listened to. As a result, the American people slowly become less capable of understanding others. Such psychological processes pose a threat to dialogues that are meant to strengthen our democracy — not divide it.

 

Contact Denise Lopez Sosa at dlopez99 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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