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How our brains are wired for political hatred

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Several fights broke out between Patriot Prayer supporters and counter-protestors, with the UW and Seattle Police dispatching pepper spray to contain unrest during a February 2018 rally.

Political polarization is nothing new, but it increasingly seeps into the lives of Americans, negatively impacting individual wellbeing and our relationships. 

René Levy, professor emeritus in the UW department of pharmaceutics, was not expecting to apply his scientific background to politics when he initially set out to study the emotion of hatred 15 years ago.

Initially believing that the reasons for conflict were rooted in political tribalism — when people stick together in certain groups, typically “us” versus “them” — Levy was surprised to learn that what is happening now is something worse. 

“In politics, tribalism leads partisans to compete with each other, but today's partisans don't want to compete — they want to dominate or eliminate,” Levy said. 

Levy defines partisans as those who tend to vote for the same party consistently. There are approximately 135 million people in the United States who consider themselves partisans, according to his findings. The often caustic discord between parties has grown into something more dangerous than just disagreement between opposing ideologies, and if people cannot interpret what happened on Jan. 6 as one of the final warnings, that marks “our own peril,” he said.

“History has shown that in the many ways that an empire can die, destruction from within is always the most complete,” Levy said. “There's no external enemy that can take over a country and inflict as much damage as two halves of a country hating each other.”

Levy’s research led him to publish a book titled “Mending America’s Political Divide,” in which he outlines goals that help stop our primitive brain from taking over due to perceived threats to safety, and enhance our reasoning brain to take control again. Luckily, the brain has an amazing capacity to change, thanks to something called neuroplasticity

“The major goal I am trying to achieve is to help people become able to choose the significance that we attribute to our political differences and to recalibrate the choice that we have made so far, which is to take our political differences and give them enormous significance," Levy said.

An important distinction to make is between a person and their beliefs, or the policies that they support. People have collectively started hating millions of individuals point-blank for the way that they think, and that threatens the wellbeing of society. According to Levy, when hatred takes over, empathy cannot survive, and people start to treat others as objects that they can deal with in whatever harsh way they see fit. 

The brain works in a way that rebuffs information that contradicts core beliefs, which can otherwise create cognitive dissonance. Couple the biology with how easily political hatred diminishes societal trust through cable news and social media, and it is no surprise that politicians and partisans alike have become obsessed with vengeance and retribution.

“Political hatred has no true test — it is manufactured by stories, by propaganda, and propaganda works,” Levy said. “We are programmed to believe what we hear, and we have to know that.”

Once people can recognize the instances when the amygdala (where emotional responses are processed) is hijacking their brain, they can easily see that, for example, something heard on the news is not an imminent danger; it may be a false alarm. 

Levy outlines three agreements that are necessary to have with oneself before engaging in a political discussion: don’t rely on facts, avoid moral superiority, and use radical listening. 

Not relying on facts doesn’t mean literally ignoring the truth. It means realizing that if you are in deep disagreement with an individual, you will be making political judgements using moral intuition, not rational thinking. For someone to accept what you are saying as true, it takes a sacrifice of their individual moral values.

Avoiding moral superiority means that one cannot think that they are moral compared to the other person, because this automatically means that they are not. 

"You can come to truly understand an ideology that you don't agree with at all intellectually,” Levy said. “You also realize when you listen to a conflicting viewpoint, it is not synonymous at all with agreeing with it or with betraying yourself.”

Reach reporter Michelle Austreich at Twitter: @djmeezus

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(2) comments

More Inclusive than Thou

I have seen more political hatred spawned and shaped and directed from within the University environment than I experienced during small town life in the Old-South or within the enlisted ranks of the US Army. Here at the UW, what is there but hate for any not singing our political gospel?

It gets so very Orwellian. Diversity has come to mean monolithic belief/world-view/values and inclusion has come to mean the reflexive cancelling of anyone truly different.


Tribalism is a coin with 2 sides. It has allowed Darwinian survival to our species in 2 way. To fight “the other” if we are threatened, but also to adhere and support each other if they are “us”. Unity is in step with this second side of the coin. But to preach unity is inadequate. Right now, for at least 30 years there has been disenfranchisement of High School, manual, factory workering citizens of all colors and shades. They have fought each other as separate tribal entities; anti fascist types vs proud boys types. They have all been screwed as individuals but also as govt-impoverished communities. It has been govt policies that have exported their opportunities to work and be self supporting as had been the case before 1980-85ish. I think “To unify” needs to start by acknowledging this injustice was political-economic, not racist. Proper actions can follow this acknowledgement so we can adhere to each other because each other is all we have.

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