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The Sadness of Partisan Polarizing

Fellow Mammal,

I am sad to be surrounded by political anger. Everyone expects me to be on their side because they are the good guys, and they label me a bad guy if I don’t. But I can’t bring myself to join up and wear the partisan goggles. I’ve tried, but each time I notice the distortion. A partisan lens filters out the good side of “bad guys” and the bad side of “good guys.” That distortion feels unsafe to me, so I rip off the goggles and live in the messiness of the unfiltered world. Living without a herd feels unsafe too, of course. In the animal world, isolation is an urgent survival threat, and natural selection built a brain that blasts you with stress chemicals when you leave the safety of the group. I have to constantly remind myself that this stress is an internal chemical, not an external fact.

Mammals relieve threatened feelings by seeking safety in numbers. But living with a herd is frustrating because you have to fill your belly on the same patch of grass everyone else is trampling. A mammal is always tempted to wander off to greener pasture, but if it did, it would quickly end up in the jaws of a predator. Natural selection built a brain that alarms you with a bad feeling when you distance yourself from the group, and rewards you with a good feeling when you return. Even predators seek a group because their food gets stolen by other predators when they’re isolated. We humans explain our social choices with polite language in our verbal brain, but our mammal brain has its own way of deciding. It scans constantly for threat signals and responds with bad-feeling chemicals that motivate withdrawal. It scans for reward signals and releases happy chemicals that motivate approach. So when the world looks safe, mammals happily fan out to find resources to meet their needs. When threats are perceived, mammals retreat to the safety of social alliances. Common enemies are the glue that binds a group of mammals. Political groups feed you a constant stream of messages about common enemies. They also describe the promised land of greener pasture you will enjoy when your enemies are defeated. Your inner mammal learns to feel good with your political group and bad without it. You may easily see this in others but it's important to see how it works in yourself.

When you talk to yourself in words, you define threats and opportunities in ways that seem sophisticated. But your mammal brain defines threats and opportunities in a simpler way. Anything that stimulated your happy chemicals in the past paved neural pathways that turn them on easily in the future. Anything that stimulated your threat chemicals in the past paved neural pathways that turn on your threatened feelings today. You can end up feeling threatened a lot if you don’t understand your inner mammal. You can find yourself in a constant rage with no idea of how you created it.

Our happy and unhappy surges are managed by brain structures inherited from earlier mammals. The mammal brain is focused on survival, but it defines survival in a quirky way. Your inner mammal cares about the survival of your genes, and it relies on neural pathways built in youth. In the modern world, we don't consciously care about spreading our genes or relying on the lessons of youth. We just want to feel good. But you feel good when you take steps toward spreading your unique individual essence in ways that worked when you were young. You feel bad when you see obstacles to your unique individual essence, especially obstacles that resemble those of your youth. This is why we end up with life-or-death feelings about relatively minor events. Political partisanship offers you a way to relieve threatened feelings and stimulate the pleasure of spreading your unique individual essence. It builds neural pathways that wire you to expect more good feelings, and thus the goggles build. But short-run good feelings are not necessarily indicative of long-term well-being. When you blame your anxiety on the “enemy” and stick closer to the herd, you get an immediate sense of relief, but you don't build essential skills. When you invoke the greater good to explain your choices, you enjoy the powerful feeling of moral superiority in the short run, but you lose your ability to navigate the reality beyond the goggles. When you blame your ups and downs on political "enemies," you enjoy the good feeling of safety in numbers but you don't learn to manage your mammal brain.

I have my biases like anyone else. My ancestors immigrated to the United States from heavily mafia parts of Italy. No one told me about the mafia when I was young, so I presumed it was an invention of Hollywood. But when I researched the huge blank space in my cultural heritage, I was shocked to learn that the mafia is very real. It lures people into violent social alliances by promising protection from enemies and a share of the rewards. When you live in a mafia community, every social bond risks you pulling into violent conflict, so people avoid social bonds to avoid that risk. But living outside the network of protection is risky too, so the pull of a mafia can be hard to resist. Fortunately for me, my parents learned to trust in their own skills instead of focusing on common enemies and expecting the herd to meet their needs. My life would be very different if my parents had yielded to their mammalian urge for the safety of a herd or pack or troop. I would have learned to feel constant fear, and to believe that I must follow the herd to survive. I would be skilled at saying “it’s not our fault, it’s their” fault,” and “proving” it with my verbal brain. I would limit my contacts to people who saw it the same way, so I would never doubt its truth. I cannot change the fact that people are mammals, but I can enjoy my power over my own mammal brain. Read more about your power to resist the pull of the herd in my new book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry. And if you want to read about the sadness of polarizing partisanship in different contexts, here are some of my lifetime favourites: Excellent Cadavers, Forty Autumns, Cartwheels in a Sari, Born to Die in Medellin, Fanshen, and The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation. To read more about the impulse to bond around common enemies, I recommend: Baboon Metaphysics, Macachiavellian Intelligence, Chimpanzee Politics, and On Aggression. You may note heavy criticism of these books because your information is inevitably filtered through one set of goggles or another.

All best wishes,

Loretta Breuning


Inner Mammal Institute

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