The Corner

Can Researching the Brain Bridge Ideological Divisions?

Indian Wells, Calif. — Can psychology and neuroscience play a role in bridging the partisan and ideological divides in America?

One of the Koch network’s lesser-known operations is the Charles Koch Foundation’s Courageous Collaborations Initiative, which supports “supporting interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities” – in short, studying the psychological and neurological roots of differences and how the human mind shifts from a hostile position to a welcoming or accepting one.

The initiative envisions multiple applications for this research, from getting those with different viewpoints talking on college campuses in reassuring settings — a quite different kind of “safe space,” designed to bring in, not wall off, different viewpoints — to helping police determine the best practices for de-escalation of tense moments at protests. Sarah Ruger directs the free expression work at the Charles Koch Foundation, and while discussing the initiative’s work at the Koch network’s winter meeting this weekend, cited an example from this month’s exchange in front of the Lincoln Memorial between the Covington Catholic students, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and the Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

“Psychologically, biologically, your brain can’t make a big leap from fearful and antagonized to open and curious. You first have to move to a place of ‘not-fearful’ and ‘not rejecting of the other,’” Ruger says. “And it takes a certain kind of environment to bring that person from ‘A’ to ‘not A’ before you can go from ‘A’ to ‘tolerant.’ When you have these kinds of situations arise so suddenly like that [in front of the Lincoln Memorial], you’re lacking a lot of the environmental characteristics or qualities that would make that moment of tolerance possible.” In other words, when people are suddenly thrown into an environment where a crowd of strangers is yelling hostile threats or sneers, the brain automatically moves to a flight-or-fight mentality, making any true listening or connection impossible.

“Your brain hates uncertainty,” said Dr. Beau Lotto, a professor of neuroscience at the University of London and a visiting scholar at New York University. “Almost everything you do is an attempt to undo uncertainty.” He noted that for thousands of years of primitive man, the consequences of uncertainty could be fatal. “If you weren’t sure it was a predator in the trees, you died. You learn from experience.” The challenge is that experience feeds inference – this kind of the person in the past was a threat or danger, thus this kind of person in front of me now must present the same threat or danger. A bad experience with one member of a group fuels wariness or suspicion of other members of the group – which partially explains some public commentators’ adamant belief that someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat must, automatically, be a malevolent force.

Ruger also noted the importance of getting “good stories” out there. “You’re inundated with stories about [the hostile interaction on the mall], but you’re not seeing the stories that are happening every single day in communities around the country where people are talking to each other, they are having those dialogues across divides over coffee or drinks of food.”

The network is partnering with MacArthur “Genius” grant winner Dave Isay’s Story Corps, an oral history project that has collected the interviews and stories from hundreds of thousands of people. Story Corps has launched One Small Step, a project that organizes and records one-on-one conversations between people with differing political views.

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