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  • I'm a political and social psychologist.

  • I study how people understand the world

  • and what this means for society and for democracy ...

  • which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

  • Some people see the world as safe and good,

  • and this allows them to be OK with uncertainty

  • and to take time to explore and play.

  • Others are acutely aware of threats in their environment,

  • so they prioritize order and predictability

  • over openness and experimentation.

  • In my academic research,

  • I study how these two approaches shape how we think and feel

  • about everything from art to politics.

  • I also explore how political elites

  • and partisan media use these very differences

  • to engender hatred and fear

  • and how the economics of our media system exploit these same divides.

  • But after studying this,

  • I have come away not with a sense that we are doomed to be divided

  • but that it's up to us to see both sets of traits

  • as necessary and even valuable.

  • Take for example two men who have been so influential in my own life.

  • First, my late husband, Mike.

  • He was an artist who saw the world as safe and good.

  • He welcomed ambiguity and play in his life.

  • In fact, we met through improv comedy

  • where he taught improvisers to listen and be open

  • and to be comfortable not knowing what was going to happen next.

  • After we got married and had our baby boy,

  • Mike was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

  • And through months of hospitalizations and surgeries,

  • I followed Mike's lead,

  • trying to practice being open,

  • trying to be OK not knowing what was going to happen next.

  • It was Mike's tolerance for ambiguity

  • that allowed me to survive those months of uncertainty,

  • and that helped me explore new ways to rebuild my life after he died.

  • About a year and a half after Mike passed away,

  • I met my current husband, PJ.

  • PJ is a criminal prosecutor

  • who sees the world as potentially good

  • provided that threats are properly managed.

  • He also is someone who embraces order and predictability

  • in his daily routine,

  • in the foods that he eats,

  • in his selection of wardrobe.

  • And PJ has a vicious wit,

  • but he's also morally very serious

  • with a strong sense of duty and purpose.

  • And he values tradition, loyalty and family,

  • which is why at the age of 28

  • he did not hesitate to marry a widow,

  • adopt her baby boy

  • and raise him as his son.

  • It was PJ's need for certainty and closure

  • that brought stability to our lives.

  • I share these two stories of Mike and PJ

  • not just because they're personal,

  • but because they illustrate two things that I have found in my own research.

  • First, that our psychological traits shape how we engage with the world,

  • and second,

  • that both of these approaches make all of our lives possible.

  • Tragically though, political and economic incentives of our media environment

  • seek to exploit these differences

  • to get us angry,

  • to get our attention,

  • to get clicks

  • and to turn us against one another.

  • And it works.

  • It works in part because these same sets of traits

  • are related to core political and cultural beliefs.

  • For years, political psychologists have studied

  • how our psychological traits shape our political beliefs.

  • We've conducted experiments to understand

  • how our psychology and our politics shape how we respond to apolitical stimuli.

  • And this research has shown

  • that those people who are less concerned with threats,

  • who are tolerant of ambiguity,

  • these people tend to be more culturally and socially liberal

  • on matters like immigration or crime or sexuality.

  • And because they're tolerant of ambiguity,

  • they also tend to be OK with nuance

  • and they enjoy thinking for the sake of thinking,

  • which helps explain why it is

  • that there are distinct aesthetic preferences on the left and the right,

  • with liberals more likely than conservatives

  • to appreciate things like abstract art

  • or even stories that lack a clear ending.

  • In my experimental work,

  • I've also found that these differences help explain

  • why ironic, political satire is more likely to be appreciated

  • and understood by liberals than conservatives.

  • On the other hand,

  • those people who are monitoring for threats,

  • who prefer certainty and closure,

  • those tend to be our political, cultural, social conservatives.

  • Because they're on alert,

  • they also make decisions quickly and efficiently,

  • guided by intuition and emotion.

  • And we've found that these traits help explain

  • why conservatives enjoy political opinion talk programming

  • that clearly and efficiently identifies threats and enemies.

  • What is essential though

  • is that these propensities are not absolute --

  • they're not fixed.

  • There are liberals who are monitoring for threats

  • just as there are conservatives who are tolerant of ambiguity.

  • In fact, PJ's political beliefs

  • are not that radically different from those that Mike held.

  • The link between psychology and politics is contingent on context:

  • who we're with and what's going on around us.

  • The problem is that right now,

  • our dominant context,

  • our political and media context,

  • actually needs these differences to be absolute,

  • to be reinforced

  • and even to be weaponized.

  • For reasons related to power and profit,

  • some in politics and media want us to believe

  • that those people who approach the world differently from us --

  • the Mikes or the PJs --

  • themselves are dangerous.

  • And social media platforms use algorithms and microtargeting

  • to deliver divisive messages

  • in our preferred messaging aesthetic.

  • Messages that relate to politics, culture and race.

  • And we see the devastating effects of these messages every single day.

  • Americans who are angry and fearful of the other side.

  • Charges of the other side destroying America.

  • But stop and think for a moment.

  • What would happen if those differences had never been weaponized?

  • It is liberal inclinations towards openness and flexibility

  • that allow us to cope with uncertainty

  • and that allow us to explore new paths towards innovation, creativity --

  • scientific discovery.

  • Think of things like space travel or cures for diseases

  • or art that imagines and reimagines a better world.

  • And those conservative inclinations towards vigilance and security

  • and tradition.

  • These are the things that motivate us

  • to do what must be done

  • for our own protection and stability.

  • Think of the safety that's offered by our armed forces

  • or the security of our banking system.

  • Or think about the stability

  • that's offered by such democratic institutions as jury duty,

  • or cultural traditions like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

  • What if the real threat posed to society and democracy

  • is not actually posed by the other side?

  • What if the real danger is posed by political and media elites

  • who try to get us to think

  • that we'd be better off without the other side

  • and who use these divisions for their own personal,

  • financial, political benefit?

  • Mike and PJ engaged with the world very differently,

  • but these distinct approaches continue to enrich my life every day.

  • Instead of our political and media context

  • determining that the other side is the enemy

  • and lulling us into believing that that's true,

  • what if we choose to create the context?

  • Real people connecting with other real people,

  • appreciating these two approaches for what they are:

  • necessary gifts that can help us all survive and thrive together.

  • Thank you.

I'm a political and social psychologist.

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The psychological traits that shape your political beliefs | Dannagal G. Young

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/10/23
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