04.06.2015 | INGRID MARIE FOSSUM
Duck or roast pork? Volkswagen or Berlingo? Eurovision Song Contest or X-Factor? Such differences of opinion among families and friends rarely end in serious squabbles. Let the conversation turn to political parties, however - like Helle Thorning vs. Lars Løkke - and lively disagreements can become downright ugly. Why is it that differences in political affiliations can arouse such strong feelings in people?
Together with his colleagues from UC Santa Barbara and Oxford University, Professor Michael Bang Petersen from Aarhus BSS has conducted research on how and why the human brain non-consciously categorises political parties.
“Politics is about groups: who belongs in which group and with whom? If you disagree with someone politically, it signals that you don’t belong in the same group. Alliances and group formations have been decisive throughout human evolutionary history, and that’s why we still react so strongly to it,” explains Michael Bang Petersen.
What’s more, as this evolved system notes and retrieves information about an individual’s political alliances, it begins to ignore other possible cues about who is allied with whom. And one of those cues it ignores is race. It is a telltale sign that our minds are treating political opinions as markers of membership in a coalition.
“Back in the Stone Age, when there was a prelude to conflict, it was important for us to know who was with us and who was against us. While the world is full of social categories like athletes, plumbers, the elderly or nail-biters, only a few categories are interpreted by the mind as coalitions - that is, sets of individuals inclined to act together and support each other against rivals,” says Michael Bang Petersen.“In the small social world of our ancestors, the political was personal. Guessing incorrectly about who is allied with whom would have had very real consequences.”
"Politics is about groups: who belongs in which group and with whom? If you disagree with someone politically, it signals that you don’t belong in the same group. Alliances and group formations have been decisive throughout human evolutionary history, and that’s why we still react so strongly to it"
Michael Bang Petersen, Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus BSS
These results, which are based on studies conducted in the USA, explain why successful politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama need not be ethnically the same as the majority of their supporters.
To test their hypothesis that political affiliation non-consciously triggers the mind’s “us versus them” system, the researchers showed participants a calm and civilised discussion between eight Republicans and Democrats. Each side was composed of two black and two white individuals, and all espoused opinions typical for their respective parties. Participants were then shown excerpts from the conversation and were asked to indicate which individual expressed each opinion. The results showed that participants spontaneously categorised speakers by their political party, and this caused a decrease in racial categorisation.
This is interesting because we live in a society where our mind’s alliance detection system spontaneously assigns people to racial groups and uses those categories when there are no other clues to alliances. When race no longer predicts coalitional alliances, but other cues do, the tendency to non-consciously treat individuals as members of racial categories fades, and sometimes disappears.
To determine whether the same applies to variations in gender or age, the researchers conducted parallel experiments using old and young men and women. As expected, the results were not the same. Since age and gender were fundamental social categories that organised the social lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors across many different social contexts — mating, parenting, hunting, gathering, and warfare - in contemporary society we still categorise people according to their gender and age.