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Bridging The Divide

Mind Over Messaging

By John Salak –

It’s not hard to trigger a political discussion these days, let alone a verbal brawl. Tensions are running high.

Science, however, has stepped in to help explain what triggers these diverse views and confrontations between liberals and conservatives and perhaps how to lower the political temperatures.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University have even gone so far as to link a region in the brain to what the now call “neutral polarization” to help explain how this divide occurs.

Their research began by scanning the brains for dozens of politically opinionated adults as they watched short nonpartisan videos on pressing immigration policies such as construction of the U.S.-Mexican border wall and protection of undocumented immigrants under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Not surprisingly, liberals and conservatives usually responded differently to the same exact videos, especially when it offered vocabulary and messages often seen in political campaigns.

“Our study suggests that there is a neural basis to partisan biases, and some language especially drives polarization,” lead author Yuan Chang Leong explained. “In particular, the greatest differences in neural activity across ideology occurred when people heard messages that highlight threat, morality and emotions.”

The multi-institution research team reported that various factors, including personal experiences and the news media, contribute to what they called “neural polarization.”

“Even when presented with the same exact content, people can respond very differently, which can contribute to continued division,” explained Jamil Zaki, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Critically, these differences do not imply that people are hardwired to disagree. Our experiences, and the media we consume, likely contribute to neural polarization.”

Zaki and his colleagues believe that the source of neural polarization is in the higher-order brain region known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Among other functions, this area is believed to track and comprehend narratives.

The report’s other key finding involved predisposition of the participants. In, fact, the closer any one participant resembled the study’s average liberal or average conservative, the more likely that individual would gravitate to that group’s particular position after watching a seemingly neutral video.

“This finding suggests that the more participants adopt the conservative interpretation of a video, the more likely they are to be persuaded to take the conservative position, and vice versa,” Leong said.

The researchers also suggested that polarization is increased when messages tough on threat-related and moral-emotional language even when these messages are in the same video is viewed by groups with differing political persuasions.

Despite underscoring what many already know—that the country is highly polarized—the researchers maintain their study offers hope of narrowing the divide between liberal and conservatives or at least helping to turn down the volume on the disagreements.

By leveraging neuroimaging, they hope to develop greater insights into how political content is absorbed and ultimately how to create interventions that will lessen highly partisan interpretations.





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