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Red & Blue Brains: Jonathan Haidt On How Ideology Shapes The Mind
Politics | February 25, 2013

Red & Blue Brains: Jonathan Haidt On How Ideology Shapes The Mind

As social psychologist and politics speaker Jonathan Haidt argues, humans tend to bind together in teams based on moral beliefs. They then hold to their convictions so fiercely that they tend to demonize anyone with an opposing viewpoint. This is especially evident in the political system where we see Democrats and Republicans fiercely squaring off on every issue before them. This has created a truly ineffective hyper-partisan climate in congress. While we know that people in different political parties have different moral beliefs that tie them to their respective sides, what we are now learning is that our environment—not our biology—leads us to those beliefs, according to Dr. Darren Schreiber. In TIME, he explains the results of a new study about the differences in brain function between Democrats and Republicans—and why this discovery has positive implications.

The study showed that conservatives accessed a different part of their brain when making risky decision than liberals did. Republicans tended to use their right amygdala when making risk-taking decisions (the part of the brain linked to the fight-or-flight system) while Democrats relied more heavily on their left insula which is generally linked to self-awareness and social awareness. What is perhaps the most interesting part of the study, however, is that our brains aren't hard-wired biologically to function one way or the other. Instead, our ideologies and environment shapes our brain function—which means we have the potential to change our minds and compromise when necessary.

As Haidt has proposed in his book and his keynotes, our political differences are shaped by the moral convictions we develop over time, a point that is in line with what this study suggests. Competition between two opposing groups often promotes a healthy society, Haidt says, until we reach a stalemate where we no longer listen to anything our opponents say. It's as if a switch gets flipped, and we see our once respected opponents as evil enemies. Luckily, we are "hardwired not to be hardwired," Schreiber tells TIME, " [and] we can change our allies into enemies and enemies into allies." And, as Haidt has often advocated, being open to what our opponents say, even if we don't always agree, is crucial to making our government operate more smoothly.
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