When political events occur, our first impulse is to try to fit it in a box. We hear that something has happened, and we efficiently make up our mind about what it means and whether or not we agree.
In fact, neuroscientists have recently discovered that the part of our brains we use when making decisions about politics is totally different from the part we use when trying to solve reasoning problems. To see if this makes sense to you, first imagine yourself having a political discussion with someone who disagrees with you, and then imagine yourself attempting to work with a colleague to solve a complex problem at the office. Does your brain feel the same in both cases? Probably not.
In both scenarios, our task is to come up with a solution to a problem. Whether they’re problems facing the nation or problems facing an organization shouldn’t make much difference, in theory. But the type of problem we’re discussing turns out to have a dramatic effect on the way our brain tries to handle it. Why?
I’d love to see more neurological and sociological research in the direction of how political beliefs and values are formed in adolescence, how they grow more stable or shift as we age, and how we might be able to hack our systems to become better political decision makers. After all, the biggest problem with democracies tends to be the voters.
Ideology is a double edged sword. Without it, you have no drive to create solutions to problems. But for every belief you integrate into your identity, you’re closing off possibilities. It creates mental shortcuts so we don’t have to spend time evaluating and deciding. The trick seems to be finding the right balance between doubt and belief, between seeing the world anew and applying old ideas.
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I'm a designer at Olark. I started Thoughtback (a private idea journal for iPhone and Mac) and Hackers & Hustlers (a group of Michigan-connected startup folks).