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Hidden Brain explores the psychology of political beliefs this February

"Hidden Brain" is a podcast and radio show that aims to help curious people understand the world, and themselves. You can hear it on WFAE Saturdays at 3 p.m.
Hidden Brain
"Hidden Brain" is a podcast and radio show that aims to help curious people understand the world, and themselves. You can hear it on WFAE Saturdays at 3 p.m.

Primaries in this year’s election continue Saturday, this time with the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina.

The radio show and podcast "Hidden Brain" this February is looking at the psychology of how people form political beliefs as well as strategies to engage more constructively with those who think differently.

It’s called U.S. 2.0 and host Shankar Vedantam joins me now to talk more about it.

Marshall Terry: So how people form their political beliefs can be very complex and you take the time needed to explore that. But can you give us a thumbnail of what you found?

Shankar Vedantam: Sure, Marshall. In many ways, I think many of us think we come to our political opinions by weighing the issues very carefully and asking ‘Which candidates do I support? Which issues do I care about? Which side of different issues has the most evidence?’ But I think there's been a growing body of work in political psychology that suggests that what's really happening at many levels is something that researchers call affective polarization, the idea that in some ways we relate to our political parties the same way that we relate to our sports teams.

And I know that many people will be taken aback by that because people will say ‘Well, no, of course my relationship with my party is not just a relationship of fandom that I have with my sports team,’ but there is a lot of research that suggests our identities and group loyalties and tribal loyalties get triggered by political conversations, and very often, the conversations that we think we are having are really happening at a level that's two or three levels below the surface of the conversation that we're actually having.

Terry: Now of the goals of this series is to offer suggestions on how people with often times diametrically opposed views can come together and engage in a way that’s constructive. That sometimes seems like it’s impossible.

Vedantam: It does, and I think one of the reasons it seems impossible is that we are all convinced that our political opponents are motivated by rage and hatred of us. What I think we forget is that our opponents think the same of us, that they think that we are out to get them. One of the episodes in this series, U.S. 2.0, looks at the work of a psychologist named Kurt Gray. One of his important insights is that even though what we see in the marketplace of political ideas is anger and hatred, really a lot of it is stemming from a feeling of fear and threat and vulnerability. One of the points he makes is that in our evolutionary history, humans and our ancestors have a very keenly developed sense of threat and danger. And in some ways those mental circuits, if you will, have been hijacked in our political discourse, so that we feel we're not just discussing ‘What is your view on this hot button subject and what is mine,’ we really feel that if our opponents were to win, they want to destroy our way of life. And so when we respond with anger and you know we sometimes are over the top, it's coming from a place of fear or vulnerability. We often forget that our opponents are motivated by the same thing.

Now that doesn't automatically mean that this becomes now easy to bridge the divide or to talk across differences, but it does suggest that when we see anger and hatred, it might be useful to start by asking ‘Is it, in fact, fear and vulnerability that is driving what I'm seeing?’ and it might take the heat out of some of the rancor that we're seeing in the political sphere.

Terry: It may not make it easier to bridge the gap. But is it possible even to persuade people with strongly held opposing views and is it worth even trying?

Vedantam: I certainly think it's worth trying. One of the episodes in the series looks at the work of President Abraham Lincoln as a model, in some ways, of how to think about how to work with people who disagree with you. Lincoln took the time and effort to basically keep a line of communication open, even with people with whom he very strongly disagreed. The model was always, perhaps there is 5% of the issues on which we can agree, why don't we agree on those 5% of issues, even if we disagree on the 95%. Or it could have been we disagree on 100% of issues right now, but let's keep the line of communication open because three years from now, or 10 years from now, there might be something on which we can find common ground.

As to how to go about doing it, one of the insights that I have found especially powerful as I reported this series is the power of listening. In many ways, this seems counterintuitive because we often feel when we're at loggerheads with someone, we have to speak more and more loudly than they are speaking in order to get heard. And of course, they feel exactly the same. Then you have a situation where two people are yelling past each other and neither of them is able to listen to the other person.

One of the interesting insights that I think we are going to explore in this series is that when we take the time to actually listen to people, we ask them how they came to their views. We asked them why they believe what they believe. We asked them what the implications are of what it is they believe. We listen to them the way that a psychotherapist might listen to a person. Yes, we might get 10 minutes or 15 minutes of a rant to where they basically are unloading every one of their beliefs on us — but if you stick with it long enough, what you will find is that people will start to become more reflective, very much like [what] happens in a psychotherapeutic setting. People will start to say, alright, ‘I've gotten over my temper tantrum in some ways and gotten all of this off my chest. Now I've gotten to a stage where I'm two levels below the surface’ and I can start to ask myself ‘Do I really believe everything that I just said? Do I believe everything with the same level of conviction? Are there nuances or elements that I'm actually willing to say that I'm unsure about?’ And in some ways that's the stage you actually want people to be at before you can actually talk with them because that's the stage at which they might be receptive to hear something that clashes with their pre-existing views.

Terry: Also as part of this series you examine some of the assumptions folks make about those who hold differing views from them. What kind of assumptions do people make?

Vedantam: It's really interesting. I think many people believe their opponents are actually far more extreme than they actually are. We've come to think, in some ways, of our opponents as caricatures, and in some ways we believe the worst about our opponents. In some ways that's because, I think, most of the people we hear in the public sphere are the people who hold the most extreme and polarized views.

Perhaps the media, you and I here Marshall, might be part of the problem, which is that we tend to elevate the views of people who have the most strident and controversial views. And when you do that, you know it might only be 15% of the population that lives, breathes and wants to talk about politics all the time and feels really passionately about every political issue — but because they are in our ears all the time, they are on cable television all the time, we come to believe that everyone has those strident views, but in fact they might actually be in the minority.

Terry: Now at the beginning of this I referred to this series as U.S. 2.0. You have referred to it in our conversation as ‘Us’ 2.0’ Is that intentional to be kind of gray or to go both ways?

Vedantam: I think it was intentional to go both ways. When we looked out at the political landscape here, there's so much of this that is about a new version of us, and so that's the Us 2.0. But clearly so much of this is built around conversations that we're having in the United States and so that play is absolutely deliberate.


Vedantam is the host of "Hidden Brain," a podcast and radio show that helps curious people understand the world through science and storytelling. This month, the show is looking at the psychology of how people form political beliefs and strategies to engage more constructively with those who think differently.

You can hear "Hidden Brain" on Saturdays at 3 p.m. on WFAE. Find our full programming schedule here.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.