The Polarized Mind

An American and Iranian Psychologist Weigh In

Posted Jul 22, 2019

 As the bitter strife between Left and Right, citizen and noncitizen, White and non-White mount, the greatest threat to humanity today goes beyond one particular political or religious ideology, economic status, or psychiatric diagnosis. It goes beyond a given cultural tradition or corrupt business practice, such as polluting the environment, and yet it includes all of these.  The fact is that this threat is a collective problem, and it has plagued humanity for ages, except now its potential for devastation is virtually limitless.  

As psychologists concerned with the social and psychological bases of human destructiveness, and as dedicated observers of history, we have identified this problem as “the polarized mind." The polarized mind is the fixation on a single point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view, and although it has caused more human torment than virtually any other factor, it persists virulently in our ostensibly "enlightened" era.

As citizens of very different and sometimes clashing civilizations, the U.S. and Iran respectively, we also have a unique vantage point on the polarized mind.  While so many theories of human destructiveness are associated with regional customs and more, we have observed the polarized mind at work in widely divergent cultural, ethnic, and economic circumstances.  Moreover, we are in complete agreement that the polarized mind is one of the major threats to humanity, not just isolated parts of the world. Our empirically based studies, for example, have indicated that mindlessness—a condition of narrowed perception and reactivity—is a chief and cross-cultural feature of the polarized mind;  while  mindfulness, an attitude of heightened awareness or presence, is a cardinal feature of the depolarized mind, associated with capacity for discovery, creativity, and well-being. It is also associated with a radical transformation of consciousness, but this consciousness cannot flourish until it counterbalances and to the extent possible, supersedes the polarized mind.  

What is the basis for the polarized mind?  While there are many contributing factors, from family and cultural conditioning to scarcity of resources to availability of weapons to neuropsychological dispositions, the common denominators among all these factors appear to be fear and anxiety. As an array of studies has shown, people tend to become polarized—fixated and extreme—in the face of helplessness, anxiety, and fear.

This condition not only tends to make people feel small and insignificant, but ultimately—and if the helplessness, anxiety, and fear are strong enough—as if their very lives are at stake. The result of this outcome is that people will do all they can to avoid such death anxiety, including becoming violent and oppressive themselves as a defense.    

The polarized mind has thus become associated with a range of extremist behaviors from despotism to racism to xenophobia to the obsession with power and control.  Such cycles are evident in history: Whenever people experience an individual or collective trauma, such as wars, economic collapse, and personal or cultural displacement, and they are unable to acquire the psychosocial support necessary to address these upheavals, the polarized mind is likely to predominate. 

Today we are faced with one of the most polarizing world situations in decades as authoritarian rule has undergone a revival and we are faced once again with the challenge: Are we going to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the hurts and insults that have led to our divisiveness, thus perpetuating a persistent cycle of human devitalization?  Or are we going to consider the findings of our hard-won psychological, spiritual, and philosophical disciplines and face the wounds that beset us? From our vantage point as investigators, there is little question that the latter course is preferable and through mindful, widespread dialogue we see an opening.  There are already grass-roots movements in this latter direction, and we see our personal interchanges as an aspect of those.  But on a larger scale, there are growing opportunities for meaningful cross-cultural exchange and for live person-to-person encounters.  One such opportunity is a group called Better Angels, to which one of the authors of this article, Kirk Schneider, belongs. Better Angels is now active in dozens of U.S. states and has conducted hundreds of workshops. These workshops consist of structured living room style dialogues between self-identified liberals and conservatives from a range of backgrounds and appear to be yielding promising results. 

The key here is the presence or mindfulness to which we alluded earlier. To the extent that interacting parties can approach each other with openness, curiosity, and respect, the greater the likelihood that they will acquire the fruit of their contacts—the ability to learn about and potentially find common ground with a formerly polarizing mind. 

Lest these proposals sound “pie in the sky,” they do not have to be. In fact, we call for a mobilization of such mindfulness practices and dialogue groups on the scale of a public works program for human civility.  We see the situation as that urgent, and if military spending and corporate welfare are a current priority for some countries, then assuredly an engagement such as human civility and the discovery of new forms of peaceful coexistence could and should be an equal priority. This is what we are attempting, and we urge the world to join in. 

Note: This article is a slightly revised version of the original article "Today's Biggest Threat: The Polarized Mind" published in Scientific American online April 16, 2019. The article was co-authored by  Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D., Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University; author of The Polarized Mind and member of Better Angels, USA  and Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi, Ph.D., Ferdowsi  University of Mashhad, Iran, The University of British Columbia, and Harvard University

References

Schneider, K. (2013).  The polarized mind: Why it's killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO:  University Professors Press.

Fatemi, S. M. (2016).  Critical mindfulness:  Exploring Langerian models.  New York: Springer.