India will hold its national elections in the next 12 months. Indians love their politics and emotions are sure to get charged up. The evening news will be full of shouting matches, charges and counter-charges, lies, promises, and the obligatory fake news. There will be political discussions on social groups and disagreements will flare up into personal insults, fights, people leaving the group, old friends being unfriended or blocked–the whole drama.
Why do people get so charged up about politics? Nothing changes personally for most people, yet they are so firmly committed to their politics and the politicians. Recently researchers studied this strange, irrational behaviour. Their studies reveal a curious phenomenon in which certain parts of the brain associated with personal identity, threat response and emotions become extremely active when someone’s political views are challenged. Correspondingly, activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with cognitive flexibility, reasoning and analytical thinking, shuts down.
So when a person’s political views get challenged their brain loses its ability to process information–which is perhaps why people are not open to alternative views. That part of the brain shuts down and its ability to process information breaks down. This is quite surprising because the human brain is designed to process new facts and use it to change direction instantly. If you were driving down a road and you see a construction sign, your brain immediately processes this new information and understands that conditions have changed and that you need to slow down and move to one side of the road.
But that same cognitive ability that frankly keeps us alive disappears when confronted with new political realities. People refuse to view the facts objectively, instead contort their brain to create alternative scenarios to fit their political views. A good example of this is demonetization. That it was a wrong decision is a fact, acknowledged indirectly by the PM himself. Study after study has pointed out its adverse effects on the economy. Yet, seemingly rational and intelligent people, continue to distort the facts to argue otherwise. They associate every good thing that happens in the country with demonetization. They view the outcome of a policy as a personal victory or defeat.
Additionally, researchers have found that the same group of people whose minds are closed when it came to politics, were more open to new information and a reevaluation of their position when it came to non-political things. So when new facts about say cholesterol and heart disease are presented–matters that are more relevant to a person than which politician wins–people are more open to analytical thinking and to alter their views. The result is surprising. People have a big part of their identity tied up with matters of politics often viewing political candidates as omniscient gods. On most issues, rational people end a disagreement by agreeing to disagree. One person cedes the last word and life goes on. But not in politics. No one wants to cede ground. Facts get thrown out of the window, meaningless historical precedents get tossed into the argument, and eventually, both sides are left angry and personally hurt. And otherwise rational people demonstrate questionable intellectual abilities.
The emotional part of the brain lights up when discussing politics, much the same way it lights up when people discuss family. Surprising, given that for most people which politician wins will eventually make very little difference; they would still have to go to work, the children would need to wake up to go to school, dinner would need to be cooked, and bills paid. Yet, brother fights brother, friendships get broken– all because of a politician who laughs his way to the bank.
Researchers further find that this discord is more pronounced in a new democracy than an established one. People in India get more emotionally charged up about Modi than Britishers do about May. Politics is important and political decisions have consequences, but politics is not war, and the other side does not have to be obliterated.
I believe this irrational attachment to politicians also has a lot to do with the size and reach of the government. In countries like Switzerland where the government is not very obtrusive people are quite casual and non-judgemental about their politics and their politicians. So in countries where the government is small, and as a result the people are big, their identity and self-worth are not tied up in politics. They acknowledge its existence but recognise that change will come from the citizens and that the politicians are replaceable parts.
But in countries like India where the government is big, powerful and pervasive, and politicians treated like rulers and kings, the citizen feels small. Politics, like religion, offers them hope. As a result, their beliefs get tied up with their identity, and an attack on their politics becomes a personal insult and an attack on their self. And as with religion, they are willing to defend their politics even if it means war.
The growth of social-media apps like Whatsapp, Facebook and Linkedin have given researchers voluminous data on how people think when confronted with new ideas and information. The vast majority of people are often put off by intellectual and complex subjects and discussions, because they may have no experience with the issue, or may find it too daunting to want to engage because doing so successfully would require a lot of time and effort. But political discussions are intellectually easy, and there is enough evidence to support each sides view that the other side’s candidate is a crook and an idiot.
As we get closer to the 2019 elections expect thousands of fights on social groups, people exiting in anger as ego’s get hurt, and friendships get soured. It is sad that something as meaningless as politics, especially given the political class in India, makes people forget that they have more in common than they have differences.