Blog

Negative Ads, Government Dysfunction, & Neurobiology

Posted on October 31, 2014

I have had an amazing month! Trips to Arkansas, New York, Kentucky, and Missouri were all great experiences. I learned something else on these trips; Colorado is not the only state where politicians are attempting to destroy each other through the negative ads which are running nonstop all over this country. Unfortunately, this negativity is being constantly pumped into our society’s consciousness through the internet, television, and radio.
I got to thinking about the impact of these ads one night and believe I might have had some insight to why our government is such a mess right now with no sign of getting better any time soon. Since most of our work relies, to some degree, on national, state, and local government, I thought it would be important to understand why things are so screwed up and what we might do to create a neurologically safe and effective system. If nothing else it is an opportunity to collectively vent about all those crappy commercials!
To find out why government is struggling, we have to start with the limbic system of our brains. The limbic system plays many roles associated with emotions and memories. Within the limbic system lies the amygdala, which is activated when we sense danger. The amygdala is central to the fight or flight response, where we either run away from danger (flight response) or strike out or attack the danger (fight response).
Key to the understanding of these responses is the knowledge that when energy and information is processed through the amygdala, the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex or intellectual parts of the brain become less active. Fight or flight is an emotionally reactive response where survival, not problem solving or mindful decision making, becomes the priority. Can we use this basic brain dynamic to help explain why so many of those seeking elected office seem more like bumbling idiots (Congress currently has a 14% approval rating) than great leaders we want to follow?
Let’s look at our current political environment through the lens of neuroscience. Most candidates go through a primary process. In primaries, often-likeminded candidates compete for the “base” of the party. Since ideology is often identical, it becomes a context of personal character. While candidates must promote their strength and experience, this is more often done by tearing down the reputation of their opponent. Since ideology is so similar, these primary elections come down to who is best able to destroy the other person – which often comes down to who can raise the most money and put out the largest number of negative ads.
I imagine these battles must be very difficult for the candidates, as people as people in their own party become the enemy. We seem well-equipped for “them vs. us” battles, but when we are attacked by people in our same group it has an even greater impact and can elicit an even more intense counterattack. Since there is no option to run away from the stress, the attacked become the attacker, creating a cycle of negative attacks that get more and more personal with every passing day. 
As soon as the primaries end, each party’s “survivor” now enters the “them vs. us” battle where not only the person is attacked but beliefs and values also come under attack. For months, candidates exist in the reactivity of the fight response. Relying so much on the illogical brain explains why so many stupid things are said throughout these elections. As every word is scrutinized by their opponents, one day’s slip of the tongue (or a candidate actually expressing what they truly believe) becomes tomorrow’s attack ad. After the smoke finally clears, we are left with a winner who has won the right to govern and lead.
Let’s take a moment to examine the psychological state of this “winner.” First, their reactive, aggressive, and illogical brain has been on hyper alert for months. The limbic system thrives on simple distinctions, like friend or foe and ally or enemy. The elected official has learned that there are enemies in their own party and a huge foe sitting across the aisle that will do their best to defeat them again next election. So while the ads might have stopped, the threat has not gone away.
Our brain thrives on generalizations. In other words, if Jane is my opponent in the general election and we have a highly negative campaign, my brain will not just see Jane as a danger, but also those who are in her group (i.e. political party, voters, political action committees, donors). We seem to have the expectation that after a negative election, the “winners” should forget the attacks of the other party and magically come together in a functional way, getting to the incredibly difficult work of governing. 
Unfortunately, this is not how our brains operate. We do not easily forget past attacks and perceived wrongs. When the elected official takes their seat they do so knowing that in the next elections, those sitting on both sides of the aisle can threaten the job they just won at great psychological and financial cost to them and their family. Think about trying to get Auburn/Alabama, Yankee/Red Sox, or Kentucky/Louisville fans to work together on a complex problem right after one team just beat the other in a big game. These “enemies” take sides around a game, politicians fight for their moral, spiritual, and political beliefs against an enemy they often think is acting immorally or corruptly. This fight is heightened by memories of past attacks and the guarantee of future battles.
If you were going to create an emotional environment that favors self-interest, conflict, and absurdity over cooperation, creativity, logical decision making, and future planning, you couldn’t create a better system than our current political structure. Along with an increase in negative ads, political action committees and rulings like Citizens United are spiraling our country into a dangerous mindset where we can no longer calmly discuss the critical issues facing our county. Add to this mix partisan media reporting (Fox News vs. MSNBC, for example) making profit from this emotional dysfunction, and the negative mindset of elections is now present 24 hours a day. This nearly unending negative exposure leaves us with a country whose citizens cannot stop yelling at each other long enough to address its problems through logic and discourse.
Complex issues like homelessness, poverty, mental health, unemployment, education, and health care that call for communities to come together fall off agendas, as individuals try to win ideological arguments that often contradict research and scientific knowledge. As Americans, we all like to think the “silent majority” is solidly on our side, but I’m increasingly convinced this “silent majority” is dissociating from a toxic public forum. Dissociating is another reactive response where we become so stressed that we freeze, and our thinking and biological processes slow down dramatically.
This leaves us with a portion of our population left yelling at each other while everyone else is so frustrated by this reality that they have given up hope and chosen to sit on the sidelines. Who can blame them? Over the last 12 years we have seen President Bush with both Republican and Democratic majorities, and then President Obama with Democratic majority and a split Congress. I’m not sure if you can find a more diverse and different makeup of government in such a sm
all space of time. The reality is that no combination has led to the flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, or stable (characteristics of our prefrontal cortex) government that we need to effectively deal with the complex and ever-changing challenges our country faces.
So what can we do? I have a few thoughts from a neurobiological perspective. First, we can find our souls and stop all the stupid and petty negative ads. Unfortunately, I have no hope this will happen. Politicians know that fear is a great motivator and negative ads work because they take advantage of our fear response. We could collectively decide that we will not support candidates that run negative ads, but I honestly do not see a way to organize something like this in a large enough way to make a real difference. I guess we could just turn off the TV, radio, and internet!
Second, I’ve always been fascinated how we try to fix the “people” in government but not the system of government in which these people fail year after year. If Obama and Bush both failed to get government to work well (at least according to the public opinion), then might there be something wrong with the system? From a brain perspective, we know that if our enemy is in the room, we will focus our energy on the enemy and not the problem in front of us. If we can’t stop the negativity during elections, we could create a system that allowed politicians to bring their best self to their work once elected.
What if every office was just one term long? Maybe stretch it out so at a federal level House members served 4 years, the President 6 years, and the Senate 8 years. A single term would allow elected officials to replace a focus on reelection with a focus on running the country, and they could tackle the hard and often politically dangerous issues like poverty, education, and equality without fear of offending their “base.” This would also take back our government from professional politicians, many of whom seem to have lost all touch with the realities in their community (they have become experts at winning elections but without the social and emotional intelligence needed to lead). A constant influx of new people would bring a level of innovation, energy, and hope into a system that currently has no soul or heartbeat.
Few systems would be allowed to exist in the pathetic state our Federal (and many State and local) Government has been in for the last several years. Are we going to blindly ride this system to our fate and demise? I’m interested in your thoughts as well. If you were “King” for a day, how would you change the system? 

Negative Ads, Government Dysfunction, & Neurobiology

Posted on October 31, 2014

I have had an amazing month! Trips to Arkansas, New York, Kentucky, and Missouri were all great experiences. I learned something else on these trips; Colorado is not the only state where politicians are attempting to destroy each other through the negative ads which are running nonstop all over this country. Unfortunately, this negativity is being constantly pumped into our society’s consciousness through the internet, television, and radio.
I got to thinking about the impact of these ads one night and believe I might have had some insight to why our government is such a mess right now with no sign of getting better any time soon. Since most of our work relies, to some degree, on national, state, and local government, I thought it would be important to understand why things are so screwed up and what we might do to create a neurologically safe and effective system. If nothing else it is an opportunity to collectively vent about all those crappy commercials!
To find out why government is struggling, we have to start with the limbic system of our brains. The limbic system plays many roles associated with emotions and memories. Within the limbic system lies the amygdala, which is activated when we sense danger. The amygdala is central to the fight or flight response, where we either run away from danger (flight response) or strike out or attack the danger (fight response).
Key to the understanding of these responses is the knowledge that when energy and information is processed through the amygdala, the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex or intellectual parts of the brain become less active. Fight or flight is an emotionally reactive response where survival, not problem solving or mindful decision making, becomes the priority. Can we use this basic brain dynamic to help explain why so many of those seeking elected office seem more like bumbling idiots (Congress currently has a 14% approval rating) than great leaders we want to follow?
Let’s look at our current political environment through the lens of neuroscience. Most candidates go through a primary process. In primaries, often-likeminded candidates compete for the “base” of the party. Since ideology is often identical, it becomes a context of personal character. While candidates must promote their strength and experience, this is more often done by tearing down the reputation of their opponent. Since ideology is so similar, these primary elections come down to who is best able to destroy the other person – which often comes down to who can raise the most money and put out the largest number of negative ads.
I imagine these battles must be very difficult for the candidates, as people as people in their own party become the enemy. We seem well-equipped for “them vs. us” battles, but when we are attacked by people in our same group it has an even greater impact and can elicit an even more intense counterattack. Since there is no option to run away from the stress, the attacked become the attacker, creating a cycle of negative attacks that get more and more personal with every passing day. 
As soon as the primaries end, each party’s “survivor” now enters the “them vs. us” battle where not only the person is attacked but beliefs and values also come under attack. For months, candidates exist in the reactivity of the fight response. Relying so much on the illogical brain explains why so many stupid things are said throughout these elections. As every word is scrutinized by their opponents, one day’s slip of the tongue (or a candidate actually expressing what they truly believe) becomes tomorrow’s attack ad. After the smoke finally clears, we are left with a winner who has won the right to govern and lead.
Let’s take a moment to examine the psychological state of this “winner.” First, their reactive, aggressive, and illogical brain has been on hyper alert for months. The limbic system thrives on simple distinctions, like friend or foe and ally or enemy. The elected official has learned that there are enemies in their own party and a huge foe sitting across the aisle that will do their best to defeat them again next election. So while the ads might have stopped, the threat has not gone away.
Our brain thrives on generalizations. In other words, if Jane is my opponent in the general election and we have a highly negative campaign, my brain will not just see Jane as a danger, but also those who are in her group (i.e. political party, voters, political action committees, donors). We seem to have the expectation that after a negative election, the “winners” should forget the attacks of the other party and magically come together in a functional way, getting to the incredibly difficult work of governing. 
Unfortunately, this is not how our brains operate. We do not easily forget past attacks and perceived wrongs. When the elected official takes their seat they do so knowing that in the next elections, those sitting on both sides of the aisle can threaten the job they just won at great psychological and financial cost to them and their family. Think about trying to get Auburn/Alabama, Yankee/Red Sox, or Kentucky/Louisville fans to work together on a complex problem right after one team just beat the other in a big game. These “enemies” take sides around a game, politicians fight for their moral, spiritual, and political beliefs against an enemy they often think is acting immorally or corruptly. This fight is heightened by memories of past attacks and the guarantee of future battles.
If you were going to create an emotional environment that favors self-interest, conflict, and absurdity over cooperation, creativity, logical decision making, and future planning, you couldn’t create a better system than our current political structure. Along with an increase in negative ads, political action committees and rulings like Citizens United are spiraling our country into a dangerous mindset where we can no longer calmly discuss the critical issues facing our county. Add to this mix partisan media reporting (Fox News vs. MSNBC, for example) making profit from this emotional dysfunction, and the negative mindset of elections is now present 24 hours a day. This nearly unending negative exposure leaves us with a country whose citizens cannot stop yelling at each other long enough to address its problems through logic and discourse.
Complex issues like homelessness, poverty, mental health, unemployment, education, and health care that call for communities to come together fall off agendas, as individuals try to win ideological arguments that often contradict research and scientific knowledge. As Americans, we all like to think the “silent majority” is solidly on our side, but I’m increasingly convinced this “silent majority” is dissociating from a toxic public forum. Dissociating is another reactive response where we become so stressed that we freeze, and our thinking and biological processes slow down dramatically.
This leaves us with a portion of our population left yelling at each other while everyone else is so frustrated by this reality that they have given up hope and chosen to sit on the sidelines. Who can blame them? Over the last 12 years we have seen President Bush with both Republican and Democratic majorities, and then President Obama with Democratic majority and a split Congress. I’m not sure if you can find a more diverse and different makeup of government in such a sm
all space of time. The reality is that no combination has led to the flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, or stable (characteristics of our prefrontal cortex) government that we need to effectively deal with the complex and ever-changing challenges our country faces.
So what can we do? I have a few thoughts from a neurobiological perspective. First, we can find our souls and stop all the stupid and petty negative ads. Unfortunately, I have no hope this will happen. Politicians know that fear is a great motivator and negative ads work because they take advantage of our fear response. We could collectively decide that we will not support candidates that run negative ads, but I honestly do not see a way to organize something like this in a large enough way to make a real difference. I guess we could just turn off the TV, radio, and internet!
Second, I’ve always been fascinated how we try to fix the “people” in government but not the system of government in which these people fail year after year. If Obama and Bush both failed to get government to work well (at least according to the public opinion), then might there be something wrong with the system? From a brain perspective, we know that if our enemy is in the room, we will focus our energy on the enemy and not the problem in front of us. If we can’t stop the negativity during elections, we could create a system that allowed politicians to bring their best self to their work once elected.
What if every office was just one term long? Maybe stretch it out so at a federal level House members served 4 years, the President 6 years, and the Senate 8 years. A single term would allow elected officials to replace a focus on reelection with a focus on running the country, and they could tackle the hard and often politically dangerous issues like poverty, education, and equality without fear of offending their “base.” This would also take back our government from professional politicians, many of whom seem to have lost all touch with the realities in their community (they have become experts at winning elections but without the social and emotional intelligence needed to lead). A constant influx of new people would bring a level of innovation, energy, and hope into a system that currently has no soul or heartbeat.
Few systems would be allowed to exist in the pathetic state our Federal (and many State and local) Government has been in for the last several years. Are we going to blindly ride this system to our fate and demise? I’m interested in your thoughts as well. If you were “King” for a day, how would you change the system? 

One response to “Negative Ads, Government Dysfunction, & Neurobiology”

  1. […] put a positive spin on this dysfunctional mess of an election. A year ago, I wrote a post on how negative ads and campaigns create an environment where it is nearly impossible to logically engage with the other party after the election. Today, I feel I must warn you that the election maybe […]

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