The Irresolvable Political Brain: Our Neuropolitical Limitations in Hyperdiverse and Uncertain Societies
This is part of our special feature on Anxiety Culture.
Currently, there exists a troubling explanatory chasm between how “anxiety cultures” are consciously experienced and enacted by individuals on the one hand, and how they are unconsciously processed at the neurocognitive level on the other hand. An indicator of this chasm is the way in which intellectual and political elites in the West have been taken by surprise by various recent election and referendum results, as well as by the troubling and ongoing rise of socio-political movements countering liberal norms and institutions.
To add to this confusion, post-War liberal political theories about the foundations of cooperation, toleration and diversity are usually based on highly speculative and subjective theories about human nature (Rawls, 1971; Fukuyama, 1992; Raz, 1994; Kymlicka, 1995; Fraser, 2000; Nussbaum, 2002; Waldron, 2000; Walzer, 2004; Gabel, 2018). The majority of these political theories do not attempt to verify the validity of their speculative claims against the actual realities of the political brain, nor are they aware of the neurocognitive limitations faced by individuals within liberal democratic societies.
At best, this is an indicator of a lack of intellectual curiosity; at worst, it signifies a liberal elite blindspot within academia—where too little is at stake for many political theorists in terms of racial and politico-economic inequality, therefore turning theories about current society into expressions of individual ideology rather than investigations of actual neuropolitical realities.
This paper contends that the first step towards overcoming the chasm between political reality and brain reality is to acknowledge that our brains are vulnerable, and that this vulnerability might in some parts be irresolvable. We need to examine the political brain in the context of hyperdiverse, hypermobile, and uncertain societies, especially the challenges our socially evolved brains face in these environments. What are the cognitive conditions necessary for citizens to cooperate peacefully in this setting, and which cognitive limitations are potentially most disruptive? How can we begin to devise a neuropolitical theory that outlines the cognitive conditions under which individuals in “anxiety culture” societies operate?
In essence, I argue that our brains—irrespective of whether we identify as liberals, democrats, libertarians or conservatives—are all susceptible to various neurocognitive tendencies that can potentially undermine the conditions necessary for cooperation, toleration, and diversity in liberal democratic societies. In fact, it might be that of all political orientations, liberalism is the least neurocognitively comfortable and satisfying one, requiring us to overcome our exclusionary and closed-minded political brain tendencies, and with additional effort under conditions of threat, anxiety, and loss of personal control.
Not only are our brains ill-equipped to handle the socio-political realities that accompany liberal democratic procedures, but we might never be able to completely overcome our brains’ biases and dehumanizing abilities, nor can we prevent people from preferring cognitive closure over openness towards ambiguity, uncertainty and risk. Nevertheless, a neuropolitical approach can bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of “anxiety cultures” and the illiberal politics that often accompany them. This, in turn, has practical implications for the setting of norms and standards of political discourse, design of institutions, and deliberative procedures.
This paper singles out two core cognitive limitations that deserve special attention: dehumanized perception of others and the need for cognitive closure, which both, in different ways, run counter to the openness and creative adaptability required of citizens in liberal democracies.
The term dehumanized perception refers to our brain’s ability to rapidly and spontaneously deny humanity to other humans, especially those belonging to a perceived out-group (Leyens et al., 2001; Harris & Fiske, 2006, 2007; Bain, Vaes, & Leyens, 2014; Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter, 2013; Kteily, Waytz, Bruneau, & Cotterill, 2015). The picture that is emerging on dehumanization and its relation to social cognition is that dehumanizing other humans is an everyday, often subtle phenomenon that we all engage in as part of how we function socially.
Although dehumanization has been studied by social psychology at the behavioral level for several decades (Kelman, 1973; Staub, 1989), exploring the neural underpinnings of dehumanization is a relatively novel endeavor. I argue that the recent psychological and neuroscience data on dehumanization is highly relevant for theorizing about politics in hyperdiverse societies, to the point that any minimal theory of social cooperation needs to be aware of it.
Lasana T. Harris (2017) treats our in-built dehumanized perception of others as part of what he calls our “flexible social cognition” system, namely our ability to imagine and infer the mental states, beliefs and feelings of other individuals; thus the fundamental neurocognitive aspect of dehumanization is the inability to infer someone else’s mental state. This inability can be directly observed in fMRI studies as an absence of neural activity in brain regions that are responsible for empathic concern (Harris & Fiske, 2006; 2007).
The neurocognitive mechanisms underlying dehumanization have been linked to troubling socio-political outcomes: from intergroup aggression, torture, and mass atrocities (Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006; Harris & Fiske, 2011), the neglect of vulnerable out-groups (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007), rejection of refugees (Dalsklev & Kunst, 2014), support for stronger retributive punishment legal contexts (Capestany & Harris, 2014) and hostility towards social welfare programs (Huddy, Feldman, & Lown 2014), to the denial of adequate pain medication in medical settings (Hoffman et al., 2016).
In addition, the tendency to apply dehumanizing categories is also of concern, such as categorizing certain human groups into animals (e.g., stereotype of the coarse and uneducated Mexican immigrant) or machines (e.g., stereotypes of overachieving and ruthless Asians or Jews) (Haslam, 2006), or perceiving them as “barbaric” (e.g. Arabs and Muslims) and less developed on an evolutionary civilization scale (Kteily, Bruneau, Waytz, & Cotterill, 2015).
These dehumanizing categories, often perpetuated in the media and in the language of U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks, have been shown to lead to the intensification of intergroup violence by those groups who feel dehumanized, as well as a reduction in the willingness to pursue peaceful means to overcome conflict (Kteily, Bruneau, & Hodson, 2016).
Further, when testing Italians’ willingness to help Haitian and Japanese earthquake victims, a study found that Italians animalistically dehumanized Haitians, and that they mechanistically dehumanized Japanese—both of which led to decreased willingness to help either group of earthquake victims (Andrighetto, Baldissari, Lattanzio, Loughnan, & Volpato, 2014). In another study, explicit dehumanization between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis predicted preference for punitive over restorative forms of justice (Leidner, Castano, & Ginges, 2013).
However, there also exist encouraging studies on how to partially overcome these tendencies, even though we might not be able to eradicate the dehumanizing tendencies of our brains completely.
For example, a mental exercise as seemingly banal as imagining someone’s vegetable preferences can help in inferring someone’s mind, and thus contribute to humanizing them (Harris & Fiske, 2007). Paying attention to language in the form of choosing relevant verbs to describe someone’s mental state (Semin & Fiedler, 1988), as well as ascribing a complex emotional inner life to individuals can also increase the likelihood of humanizing them (Leyens et al., 2001). Emphasizing similarities and shared universal characteristics between disparate social, cultural, and national groups can also help prevent cognitive dehumanization (Roccas, Klar, and Liviatan, 2006, 137). Conversely, on the international stage, rhetoric about “civilizationary clashes,” as put forward by Samuel Huntington (1996), or the pitting of the Western “civilized” world against the “barbaric” non-West (Bush, 2001) can lead to toxic dehumanization outcomes (Kteily, Waytz, Bruneau, & Cotterill, 2015), and should therefore be avoided.
These strategies should not be confused with broadly increasing empathy in people’s brains, but understood as a distinctive targeting of our brains’ core dehumanization vulnerabilities. In fact, asking people to excessively humanize routinely dehumanized groups, such as the homeless, can actually lead to the reverse effect: people will avoid humanizing the most dehumanized individuals in society because they fear emotional exhaustion (Cameron, Harris, & Payne, 2016).
Whereas it might be relatively easy for people to affirm values around universal humanization, such as the right to dignity in the International human rights debate, realizing those abstract values in our concrete and contingent brains is a potentially far bigger challenge, as studies on the effect of human rights education on police brutality show (Wahl, 2013; Yu, 2017, Ch.4).
In addition to dehumanization, I wish to put forward a second core vulnerability of our political brains: the desire for cognitive closure. This is particularly relevant for “anxiety cultures,” since the possibility of achieving cognitive closure is constantly thwarted by the ambiguous, uncertain and indefinite conditions that prevail.
Political psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to explore the relationship between partisanship and political beliefs on the one hand, and neurocognitive and behavioral functioning on the other. The groundwork for the study of personality differences between conservatives and liberals (or leftists) was laid in the aftermath of WWII by researchers such as German-Jewish émigré Theodor W. Adorno (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950) and Gordon Allport (1954).
Since then, the research on partisan differences along behavioral, psychological, physiological, neurocognitive and even genetic lines has expanded considerably (for reviews, see Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2014; Jost et al., 2014). Even though some of the claims, especially those purporting genetically verifiable differences, are contested, it is possible to argue that a preliminary picture of the conservative versus the liberal brain has begun to emerge: conservatives seem to be more sensitive to threats and disgust, as well as more resistant to change and accepting of new information. Conservatives also prefer to justify rather than question the status quo and to choose order and adherence to rules in preference to uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Liberals, on the other hand, are less sensitive to threats and can tolerate more repulsive stimuli due to a higher disgust threshold. They more readily question existing social inequality and authority; in addition, they are also more open to new experiences and willing to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. The conservative brain has been characterized by John R. Hibbing and his colleagues (2014) as exhibiting a “negativity bias”: according to this characterization, the world, for the conservative brain, is foremost a place of danger; rules and deference to authority-based systems help to keep this danger at bay.
It is important not to disparage the conservative brain for characteristics that not long ago might have served vital evolutionary purposes: constantly looking out for potential danger and maintaining the hard-won survival of the status quo made sense for human beings in a world that, until recently, was filled with predators, unpredictable natural disasters and fatal illnesses. Instead, we should rather ask anew which cognitive conditions are now necessary for us to thrive together in hyperdiverse and uncertain societies.
Studies have shown the political brain to be highly suggestible. For example, consider that simply exposing people to disgusting odors can decrease their approval of homosexuals (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009), that sitting in a messy room (Schnall et al., 2008) or hard and uncomfortable chair can lead to harsher moral judgments (Ackerman et al., 2010), and that staging a polling place in a religious place such as a church versus a more neutral place, such as a school, increases the chances of people voting for right-of-center candidates (Berger et al., 2008; Rutchick, 2010). A study with Icelandic politicians shows that if they were exposed to higher levels of threat (to the self, group and system), they would score higher in political conservatism and close-mindedness (Thórisdóttir & Jost, 2011).
The suggestibility of our political brains in general and the ill-adaptation of the conservative brain in particular to the context of “anxiety cultures” are some of the most concerning insights to emerge from these studies.
It is crucial to pay attention to how “anxiety cultures” are viscerally experienced by individuals, especially in the form of loss of agency and control, and what consequences this has on political orientation. Studies on the relationship between exposure to existential threats and coping strategies for fear and anxiety show an increase in system justification and right-wing orientation with an increase of threats (Bonanno & Jost, 2006; Burke, Kosloff, & Landau, 2013). Support for religious and authoritarian systems has been observed to increase with lowered perception of personal control (Kay et al., 2008).
Ironically, “anxiety cultures” can thus get trapped in a vicious circle of causing close-minded and conservative reactions to anxiety, which, in turn, create further anxiety-based narratives and models of problem solving. Sadly, the persistence of “anxiety cultures” also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those whose brains tend to seek the most negative and anxiety-filled interpretations of our world.
Insights into the partisan brain seem to point to a more general conclusion that above all, the political brain struggles to embody liberal democratic values, rather than having a natural tendency to adopt them without effort. Speculative political theorists from Aristotle, Hobbes and Bentham to Rousseau and Marx have made various claims about the political animal and its natural tendencies towards freedom and toleration. In comparison, the current neuropolitical insights present a rather worrying picture of how cognitive pressures can quickly lead to preferences for hierarchical rather than egalitarian systems (Van Berkel et al., 2015) and that liberalism, unlike conservatism, requires us to devote more cognitive effort and engagement into making judgments about the world (Eidelman et al., 2012). To put it bluntly, our brains need to work harder to be liberal brains.
In a final consideration, since conservatives are self-reportedly happier than liberals (Choma, Busseri, & Sadava, 2009), we have to pay attention to the fact that the liberal brain has a special need for maintaining equilibrium of wellbeing, contentedness, and purpose if it wants to survive and thrive in hyperdiverse and uncertain societies.
By understanding “anxiety cultures” through the lens of the political brain, we are beginning to bridge the epistemological chasm between the sciences and humanities, thereby drawing a more bioholistic, comprehensive and also neurocognitively more vulnerable picture of human beings in the realm of politics.
Only a neuropolitical perspective challenges us with uncomfortable truths about our cognitive dispositions and forces us to reconsider the racial, classist, gender and cultural biases inherent in many speculative theories about human nature that are currently employed to analyze our political world. A neuropolitical perspective prevents us from engaging in moral self-righteousness, as well as the common and dangerous liberal assumption that noble beliefs and values can automatically protect us from dehumanizing others (Flikschuh & Ypi, 2014).
Liberals need to understand that the liberal good life that they believe in and are fighting for is not necessarily the most comfortable or natural neurocognitive feat for the political animal. In fact, our brains might be overwhelmed by the dizzying speed in which our modern world has developed, unsure how to cope with the hyperdiverse and hypermobile societies that we live in today.
This perspective of our political brains as being especially susceptible to conditioning by threat and fear can help to explain, for example, why experiences of poverty, exclusion, and catastrophe can actually lead to an increase in conservatism, as in the case of certain immigrant groups that have supported President Trump during the election (Robbins, 2016). Likewise, it might help explain why a whole swath of hitherto liberal society turned fascist, as during Germany’s transformation from liberal Weimar Republic to the Nazi’s Third Reich.
Going forward, researchers across the disciplinary divides need to lay aside their ideological differences and embrace a neuropolitical paradigm shift through a truly interdisciplinary breakthrough in how to make sense of our political world. Otherwise, intellectual and political elites will continue to be left surprised and clueless about the ongoing shift towards illiberalism, authoritarianism, and right-wing conservatism both in the Western and non-Western world.
In conclusion, despite the sobering and somewhat pessimistic insights that this paper offered, it is important to remind ourselves that the very human brain that dehumanizes others and shuts down in the face of threat, ambiguity and vulnerability, is also the brain that so bravely, imaginatively and curiously put forward progressive political and intellectual milestones: from the Ashokan Edicts and Magna Carta to the American Declaration of Independence and Universal Declaration of Human Rights; from investigating the fallacies of human perception by Plato, Aristotle, Zhuang Zi and Adi Shankara, to Baruch Spinoza’s and Thomas Hobbes’ protobiological investigations into social and political actions in the context of the modern state. It is this side of our neuropolitical capabilities, instead of the anxiety-driven and dehumanizing ones that we need to channel as we are embarking on defending liberal democracy anew.
Liya Yu received her B.A. in social and political sciences from Cambridge University (2008), and her Ph.D. from Columbia University (2017). She wrote an interdisciplinary dissertation employing the neuroscience of exclusion and dehumanization to outline a new political theory for hyperdiverse, divided liberal democracies. As a German-Chinese, she is actively engaged on issues of intercultural identity and immigrant mental health in both Germany and China. She was a lecturer at the University of Virginia and is now affiliate faculty at Columbia’s Teachers College’s Global Mental Health Lab.
Photo: Silhouette of a man’s head. Mental health relative brochure, report design. Scientific medical designs. Grunge brush drawing | Shutterstock
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Published on July 2, 2018.