Could Intense Political Partisanship Be Treated as a Disease Would?

What if all the political unrest in the world today could be treated, and everyone would just calm the hell down?

This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Interesting political study

Researchers from Brown and Stanford University published a study in 2020 that examined how political polarization is sharply rising in almost all developed countries – most notably in the United States

With the support of previous research, this study indicated that more Americans are experiencing strong negative feelings toward opposing political parties.

While this fact is not Earth-shattering, more interest was focused on all the political polarization drivers. Typical reasons for this have been biased media reporting, the massive presence of social media, economic struggles, and so forth.

However, this study offers a fresh new psychological hypothesis. The overall intolerance of uncertainty is what drives people to observe the world through partisan lenses. More specifically, those who choose to see things as black and white are far more vulnerable to an ideology.

No tolerance for uncertainty

Even though previous studies have concluded that uncertainty intolerance influences political polarization, this new study is the first to show it occurs on both left-wing and right-winged people.

“One theory posits that polarization arises because holding extreme political views satisfies a need for certain and stable beliefs about the world,” stated the researchers in their report. “This suggests that intolerance to uncertainty may play an outsized role in shaping polarized perceptions.”

Study method and results

Researchers invited 22 conservatives and 22 liberals to take part in their study. They were asked to watch three video clips while fMRI observed and recorded brain activity. The first video was a neutrally worded news clip on a politically charged topic (abortion). The second video was a very inflammatory debate segment about immigration and police brutality. And the third video was a nonpolitical piece about nature.

After viewing the video clips, each participant was asked to answer questions about their perception of them. They were also asked questions about their reactions to the topics, their political views, and their tolerance of uncertainty.

As these uncertainty-intolerant participants viewed the inflammatory debate, their fMRI data revealed similar activity in brain regions associated with emotional and social processing. But there were also differences between the two-party affiliations. For the most part, all liberals reacted similarly – as did the conservatives.

Researchers believe that this reaction indicates that those intolerant of uncertainty are more apt to view the world through a stronger political lens. Rather than depending on ideology alone, they use a cognitive trait like intolerance to uncertainty, which along with ideology, creates a polarized perception of the world. Therefore, uncertainty intolerance could very well be the backbone of political polarization.

Hot-button topics do not need to be polarizing

Amazingly, the video clip about abortion did not produce very much neural synchrony.

Although abortion is a highly polarizing topic, the segment was worded and presented in a neutral way. Thus, it contained less ideology-driven verbiage. This implies that polarized perception isn’t only driven by ideological differences but also in the manner in which they are presented.

Experts see this part of the study as quite promising. It suggests that individuals are more tolerable when presented with level-headed and neutral information.

Could partisanship be treated as a mental health condition?

Perhaps the most encouraging result of all was discovering that uncertainty intolerance exacerbates the rigid political belief of a person. This is because, in theory, uncertainty intolerance can be modified through intervention – like many forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

If we could teach people to be more tolerant of uncertainty, then maybe they could be discouraged from viewing the world through their thick ideological lens. Because as we all know, doing so will hamper any bipartisan cooperation and actually undermines the basic principles of democracy.