Minding the Debate: What’s Happening to Our Brains During Election Season

Published 3:40 pm Thursday, June 27, 2024

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By: Melinda Burrell, PeaceVoice writer and facilitator with the National Association for Community Mediation


Some of us are convening watch parties and others deliberately will not tune in. Either way, the June 27 presidential debate is the real start of the election season, when more Americans start to pay attention. It’s when partisan rhetoric runs hot and emotions run high.

It’s also a chance for us, as members of a democratic republic. How? By setting expectations for ourselves and our leaders. A peek at our neurobiology can help us make this debate something we learn from rather than something that divides us further.

As humans, we’re wired to pay close attention to what others say and do because we want to know how well we fit into our group. But it’s mostly our subconscious that does the listening. We’re rarely consciously aware of what we’re absorbing.

We can change that a bit by learning how we’re primed to hear the “other side,” and then challenge ourselves to understand the election rationally rather than only emotionally. We’re so susceptible to priming that even someone else’s word choice can influence our behavior without our knowing. One study found that exposing people to rude or aggressive words before having a conversation (words like “power” and “fierce”) makes people interrupt.

But if you offer words like “help,” “harmony,” and “fair,” people behave politely. Just hearing a few words can shape our behavior for good or bad.

Some words are particularly contagious because they capture our attention – moral emotional words like shame, disgust, and empathy that help us make ethical judgments. As psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his team found, tweets that contain moral-emotional language (“Check out this statement from the debate – he should be ashamed!”) get retweeted much more than neutral or even positive moral-emotional language.

Also at play in election season are blindspots built into our brains – shortcuts that help us process information more quickly. One blind spot is the fact that, essentially, we’re hardwired to have double standards. When the guy from the other team is caught taking bribes, we’re outraged by this person’s evilness (cue the moral-emotional retweets!). When the guy from our side does the same thing, we make all sorts of excuses for why it was a one-off and not so bad. So how can we use this understanding of our neurobiology?

At a minimum, we can be aware of the effect of candidates’ negative moral emotional language on us and not repost it. We can also make sure we hold our guy to the same standards we hold the other guy. More constructively, we can demand better language from our leaders. Some countries have “keep it clean” pledges in which both candidates agree not to use hate-filled language about the other side. What if we asked our candidates, at all levels, to do that?

Another idea is confirmed by a 2021 study. Simply seeing leaders treat each other warmly across a divide (laughing together, parting with a hug) increases our own feeling of warmth towards members of the other party. Utah Governor Spencer Cox launched the Disagree Better initiative, featuring videos of governors from both parties talking together. We can support (and vote for) officials who build relationships across the aisle.

Wouldn’t it be a relief if we saw our leaders simply getting along from time to time?