How Today’s Extreme Social and Political Polarization Has Less to do with What We Think, Than How We Think—and the Essential Implications

Over the course of the pandemic year, I launched into writing what I thought would be my culminating book, an overarching, magnum opus work on Creative Systems Theory. But as I neared the book’s completion, a dynamic that is coming more and more to define social discourse— the degree of social and political polarization we witness today—motivated me to again sit down to write. 

Conflict between ideological factions has become so pronounced that real conversation about a great many topics has become largely impossible. Extreme polarization is setting neighbor against neighbor, creating distraction that gets in the way of addressing essential questions, and often very directly putting us at risk. And more and more we find a particularly troubling kind of double polarization, not just extreme polarization between left and right political positions, but with populist thinking on both the left and the right, at once an anti-authoritarian polarization between above and below. We are seeing such polarization twice-over becoming ever more pronounced and people’s voices becoming ever more shrill.

This situation should concern us deeply. For me, it is putting the need to succeed in our efforts toward the kind of “growing up” as a species that Creative Systems Theory addresses with the concept of Cultural Maturity in high relief. I wrote the book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About It in response. 

Current circumstances highlight an essential recognition both for getting beyond today’s knee-jerk polar animosities and for understanding how Cultural Maturity’s changes might provide an antidote. It is a key theme in the book. In the end, ideology has less to do with what we think than how we think. Ultimately it is about something more basic even than collections of beliefs and values, what people refer to with a term like worldview—though that gets us a bit closer. At its most fundamental, ideology is about psychological patterns, or more precisely, patterns of cognitive organization. It is not so much that belief creates polarization, than that polarity’s role in how we think creates polarized belief. 

As a psychiatrist, this doesn’t come as a surprise. In working with individuals, I am used to listening less to a person’s specific words than to the underlying psychological implications. I listen to “where the person is coming from.” Ultimately I’m interested in the patterns of psychological/cognitive organization that generate a person’s beliefs. In my role as cultural psychiatrist, it comes naturally to listen in a similar way.

The notion that social/ political polarization has more to do with our cognitive mechanisms than the real complexities of policy can easily come as a surprise. We tend to think of our opinions in terms of rationally arrived at conclusions. And the media tends to take at face value that what a person says is generally what he or she means, or at the least that the words adequately reflect what drives the person’s concerns. But the recognition that we are dealing with underlying cognitive patterns is key. It is pivotal to making sense of why getting beyond polarization can be so difficult and why efforts at civil discourse so often fail. And if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, it is essential to understanding what is needed going forward.

Cognitive dynamics are not all that beliefs are about. The particulars of belief can be products of reasoned consideration. And beliefs can be influenced by numerous external factors—where we live (for example, urban versus rural), the family we grow up in, or the unique challenges our particular life may present. But belief quickly translates into psychological pattern. We can think of these patterns like “ecological niches” in the makeup of our psyches. Different kinds of social narratives fit most comfortably into particular cognitive niches.

Multiple kinds of evidence support the conclusion that ideology has less to do with what we think than how we think. Some of the best can be found in the common intractableness of people’s opinions. We tend to assume that when people have views different from our own that the appropriate response is to engage in reasoned discussion and debate. In fact debate rarely changes anyone’s mind. As often the result is positions becoming even more entrenched. 

We also find evidence in how issues that eventually become highly polarized are often not thought of in partisan terms when they first come to the public’s attention. This was the case, for example, with both climate change and health care reform. There were no obvious sides to the climate change debate when the evidence first came to light. And the approach on which Obamacare was initially modeled was Republican Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts. We often encounter related surprises with us-versus-them antagonisms on the world stage. It turns out that wars are less often the result of major differences than we tend to assume. Think of how World War I began with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While it was a significant event, few people had any idea it could have such world-altering consequences.

We find an important further kind of evidence in the common closeness of elections. If voting were based on the perceived intelligence of a candidate’s ideas, much more often than we do, we would see general agreement as to which candidate is the most qualified. Instead, elections are most often won by a few percentage points, or less. This is what we would predict if we are dealing not just with differences of opinion, but opposite polarized cognitive patterns. Pushed to extremes, polarities split fifty-fifty, like two sides of a coin. One of the best ways to win an election if you are not really qualified is to create controversy and polarization. Because polar opposites tend to split about evenly, you should then be able to get something close to fifty percent of the vote. (Unless polarization is at work, we would expect to find whatever split matches the number of people that reach each kind of conclusion.)

We also find evidence in the almost inverse relationship that exists between how informed a person is and the likelihood that the person will have strong views. If surety was a product of how thoroughly topics had been examined, we would expect the opposite. But in truth we commonly find the most adamant and shrill opinions and the most lengthy pronouncements coming from people who in fact know the least and have least to offer to a real conversation. Less information more quickly aligns with cognitive patterns. More information risks creating internal dissonance. 

It turns out that if we have sufficiently nuanced conceptual tools available to us, we can make pretty accurate predictions about the ideological beliefs that we will encounter by teasing apart psychological structures and patterns. I use the Creative Systems Theory Personality Typology in this way. What we can then predict is underlying values and narratives not particulars when it comes to specific issues, but this kind of observation can prove immensely useful. At the least, it helps make sense of otherwise confusing results—such as how people can have views that would seem not at all to be in their best interest or how often we find strange-bedfellow alliances. It also helps us appreciate what the more encompassing kind of understanding that comes with culturally mature systemic perspective involves and just what it requires of us.

In Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord I go into detail not just about the cognitive mechanisms that produce polarization, but also what is needed for the more systemic kind of understanding needed to get beyond it. In addressing an array of issues that commonly evoke polarized responses in our time—climate change, health care reform, abortion, race and gender relations, immigration, and more—a simple observation provides that basic architecture for my approach: “In times past, when we encountered polarized positions and partisan advocacy, our task was obvious and unquestioned. We assumed that there were only two options and that our job was to figure out which one was right and fight for it. As we look to the future, polarization has very different implications. It alerts us to the fact that we have yet to ask the hard questions that ultimately need to be addressed. When we succeed at asking the larger questions, we see that there have always been more than just two sides. We also see that while each traditional side may hold a piece of the truth, neither side by itself, nor just some averaging of positions, can get us where we need to go. Moving forward effectively will require bringing greater maturity, and more encompassing perspective, to how we make sense of our worlds and how we make choices.”  With each more specific topic, I describe how,  if we can identify the harder, more systemic question and take it on, larger perspective becomes possible. I also emphasize that when we are up to the challenge, the results can seem straight-forward—in the end, like common sense. The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that this new, more complete kind of common sense will be essential to any kind of future we would want to live in.