April 07, 2016

With politics so divisive right now, it’s easy to ask, “How did we get this way?”

Psychologist Kurt Gray has spent his career asking this question. In a book co-authored with the late Daniel Wegner, The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why it Matters, he finds that a big part of political polarization has to do with our perception of who has a mind. 

"We actually de-mentalize people in a couple different ways. Our work suggests that we see minds along two broad dimensions, in two ways, and we see minds as kind of thinking and feeling.” 

Our understanding of whether a person can “think” or “feel” dictates how we relate to and empathize with them. 

Gray argues that when we split into groups we can start to believe that those who oppose us don’t have minds. 

“This is what's captured by the term ‘objectification,’ ” he says, “We just see someone as just an object, and this is the most extreme form of de-mentalization.” 

And breaking up into groups is often a matter of small differences that can push people apart at any moment. 

“So when you look across the political aisles, it's easy to think that other people are evil or dumb,” Gray says. 

Conversely, we often ascribe minds and personalities to our pets, or even inanimate objects like an old, beat-up car. 

“Mind perception is really driven by a couple of motivational processes. We perceive minds when it gets us something and in particular when it gets us feelings of love and emotional connection or feelings of understanding or predictability.” 

So, what do you do if you want to re-humanize those you’ve pushed away? 

Gray says that finding a common goal is key. Perhaps you don’t agree on school choice, or global warming, or military spending. But if there’s one thing you can collaborate on - whether it’s income inequality or repairing infrastructure - you’ve got a chance to start seeing the good (and the real, live person) in each other.

Body and Mind, The Mind Club, Kurt Gray

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