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Us And Them In Politics: Why We Each Think We Are Right And They Are Wrong

We will never live in a world where everyone sees things the same way, but this does not mean that we lack the ability to work together. We have an inclination to draw lines between us and them.
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I have strong opinions about who should, and who should not, be the next president of the United States. My perspective feels incredibly rational and justified -- to me. And there is good reason for this -- because I am human. I have a built-in bias for the people I agree with. I tend to believe that my group is superior to the "others." And, if I ever doubt that my group is better, then I can just consult with any member of my clan, and they will renew my faith. Humans have a bias for our own groups.

If there is any sense to be made of the current political climate, it is really important to understand ingroup and outgroup bias. For almost fifty years, we have had experimental evidence that people see their group as better than the "others." This feeling of superiority does not require any ideological basis. All that is needed is a flip of a coin. Even when people are aware that the groupings they are in were chosen at random, they still have a preference for the group they are part of.

These biases show up in our perceptions, our emotions, and our behavior. And there is strong evidence of the correlation between activity in the brain and group bias. Our preference for "people like us" is triggered at a biological level that sits below conscious choice. In our attempts to support our unconscious bias, we come up with justifications. We are much more likely to assign positive motives to the members of the groups we are part of and negative motives to the groups that are "other."

So, here we are in the midst of our political process. Some percentage of us believe that we are in the group that has the proper motivation and the correct solutions to the problems facing our country. We are in opposition to the "other" group that is attempting to "ruin the country." The great irony of the whole situation is that there is widespread agreement on the desired outcomes -- economic prosperity, security, health, and well-being. I am not so naïve that I do not understand that there are some real ideological differences between political parties, and I do not believe that all solutions to a problem are equally viable. I am simply suggesting that debating these ideologies and working toward solutions does not require us to denigrate, demean, or threaten each other.

Given our biases, how do we act in the interest of the greater good? It begins with being aware that we are unconsciously looking for reasons to agree with members of our own group and reasons to disagree with members of other groups. We can be conscious of the fact that no one has an objective view. Not me, not you, not us, not them -- no one. It's like a great big practical joke -- we all think we see objective reality, and not one of us does. We can be aware that even when we feel 100% certain that we are right, it does not mean that we are right. We can be aware that human beings are resistant to information that could require us to reconsider what we currently believe. In fact, there is evidence that the more factual information we are presented with that contradicts what we already believe, the more entrenched we become.

We will never live in a world where everyone sees things the same way, but this does not mean that we lack the ability to work together. We have an inclination to draw lines between us and them. We can choose to be aware of this inclination and temper rather than fuel it. If we were animals without a prefrontal cortex, then we would not have this choice. But, as human beings, we do have a choice, and we are at our best when we take this choice seriously. We can treat those who disagree with us as we would like to be treated. I feel pretty certain that there is a Golden Rule to this effect.

Dave Mochel provides coaching and training in Awareness-Based Self-Regulation -- a research-supported and time-tested practice to maximize well-being, growth, and connection. He partners with individuals, couples, teams, and organizations to create conscious lives and conscious cultures. You can contact him at dave@appliedattention.com