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Tribal Identities Fuel Motivated Reasoning

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To many observers, the election was a clash of two Americas—a war between two increasingly partisan identities, each of which is incredulous at what the other supports. As the Pew Research Center documents, the gulf between them is enormous. For example, 74 percent of Biden supporters told the Pew Research Center that “it is a lot more difficult” to be a Black person in this country than to be a White person, a view shared by a mere 9% of Trump supporters. Likewise, 68 percent of Biden supporters said climate change was important to their vote—as was the case for but 11 percent of Trump supporters (who scored this last among 12 issues of possible concern).

Many Republicans, having believed Donald Trump would win, are aghast at the defeat of their pro-life, law-and-order supporting, free-enterprise-buttressing, patriotic values-embracing leader.

Democrats had hoped the massive turnout heralded a massive blue wave repudiation of Trump’s bigotry, divisiveness, and climate unfriendly actions. Thus, many are stunned that all this barely moved the needle—from a 2016 electoral vote margin of 2.1 percent to about 5 percent—despite improved Democratic party demographics, increased fund-raising, and a better-liked candidate.

In Why We’re Polarized, journalist Ezra Klein draws on social science research to document how Americans now view politics through the lens of their strongly held partisan identities—who “we” are versus who “they” are. Klein describes how our political tribal identities engage what we psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Whatever our party and its leaders do—even when it clashes with what we formerly believed—we rationalize. Even morality and religion have become subservient to politics.

In the latest issue of Science, an interdisciplinary team of 15 scholars, led by social psychologist Eli Finkel, further describe today’s “political sectarianism” and the rise of out-party hate. They document the growing contempt that today’s partisans feel for the other party, which greatly exceeds the love they have for their own.

Recall, too, the power of the availability heuristic—our tendency to estimate the commonality of events based on their mental availability. Whatever information pops readily into mind—often vivid images—can hijack our thinking. Thus, potent memes (“defund the police”) and scenes (rampaging protesters) can define those we associate with them, even if the meme represents no political party and the scene represents an infinitesimal proportion of otherwise peaceful demonstrators.

In the post-Trump era to come, both parties will be debating and massaging their brand identities in hopes of drawing more people in while retaining their base. Partisans on both sides could, methinks, benefit from a reading of Peter Wehner’s prescient The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump—a guidebook to seeking a more perfect union (a book acclaimed, remarkably, by both Democratic strategist David Axelrod and Republican strategist Karl Rove).

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).