In the spirit of our excitement about the first imaging of a black hole, I wanted to submit a brief today about the wonders of gravity. Except it wasn’t the gravity of a supermassive black hole with the mass of two-and-a-half billion suns that caught my eye. Instead, it was the gravity that fuels the poles of the widening gyre in our politics and culture, and an interesting new framing of its psychological and behavioral causes.
That novel framing comes from a new article in the journal published by the Association for Psychological Science (h/t @SteveStuWill). It is a survey piece, so it doesn’t publish any new findings. It does, however, organize recent research that posits the sources of similarity between extreme political opposites and differentness between those extreme groups and political moderates. Helpfully, it does so in a way that will be familiar to frequent readers of Epsilon Theory. In short, van Prooijen and Krouwel from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam describe these distinguishing traits as follows:
- Psychological Distress
- Cognitive Simplicity
- Intolerance (of other groups and opinions)
A separate four horsemen, if you will, which unite our political poles and separate them from the hollowed-out shell we used to call a political center.
The final three – Cognitive Simplicity, Overconfidence and Intolerance – strike me as being more descriptive than predictive, NTTAWWT. The underlying papers generally don’t make strong causal inferences (except, perhaps, among and between these traits), but simply observe the traits shared by members of polar political positions and differentiate them from those still seeking to engage in cooperative game-playing. I think the framework implies a set of simple, useful tells to identify those who are contributing to the ever-expanding tendency toward competitive game-playing in our politics and culture:
- Cognitive Simplicity: Does the speaker/writer consistently assert that problems on which there is significant disagreement are simple, black-and-white, and would be easy to solve if others weren’t so stupid/immoral/self-interested/corrupt?
- Overconfidence: Does the speaker/writer express unreasonable confidence in their knowledge about events, about how policies would function? Do they demonstrate any epistemic humility, or are they prone to declare debates “over?”
- Intolerance: Does the speaker/writer rely on expressions of fear of some group of people? Do they actively seek to constrain “acceptable” language and discourse?
It is actually the first trait, however, that interests me most (although I willingly admit, as you will see shortly, that I probably suffer from confirmation bias on this point). I think it is the one which most readily explains not only how the widening gyre manifests in our behavior, but also how it forms and expands. Psychological distress – as defined here – is ‘a sense of meaninglessness that stems from anxious uncertainty.’
Sound familiar? It should.
Here’s an exploration of how this anxious uncertainty, this sense of meaninglessness amplifies our sensitivity to being drawn into the widening gyre.
Here’s our discussion of how the creation of existential threats inevitably emerges as the universal narrative tool to exploit this anxiety, and the full hearts response:
Here’s our examination of the specific existential narratives of this widening gyre, which are the primary engines creating political extremes from psychological distress.