Almost to a person, we’ve all no doubt been involved in discussions that suddenly swerved into hot-button territory and been shocked by just how fast a spark could be fanned into a flame. Something is said that challenges a deeply-held conviction for someone, and in the space of a breath the conversation becomes hostile. Name calling comes into play; people suspect each other of the worst motivations, and mutual respect goes out the window.
The field of social psychology (sometimes called moral psychology) has shed some light on this phenomenon recently. Studies reveal that most of our reasoning occurs in a post hoc (after the fact) manner. We respond to stimuli with feelings and emotions first; our prefrontal cortex provides reasons and justifications for our moral judgments afterwards. What’s quite fascinating is that we tend to be unaware of this feel first/explain second progression: it happens so quickly that we’re convinced the thoughts and judgments came first. This is what psychologists mean when they talk about the primacy of affect.
The swiftness with which communication can turn into combat turns on the anger we feel when our cherished notions, beliefs and convictions are tested by unfamiliar perspectives. As much as we like to tell ourselves that we’re open-minded, that we want to learn and grow, the fact is that parting with what we think we know can be painful and difficult.
Another important fact: like all primates, we are social animals with strong kinship ties. For our ancestors, membership in a tribe was a matter of physical survival; for us today our affiliations with modern-day “tribes” is central to our psychological wellness. Having the beliefs and attitudes of our group forcefully challenged feels in some ways similar to facing an assailant. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that sharing our perspectives with those who don’t share them can be a tricky business. Done with mutual respect and a “namaste” attitude, it can be greatly rewarding. Getting ourselves out of combat mode and into a sharing space can make all the difference in the world.