Splitting America (Part 2/3): Left and Right Brain Conflict Resolution

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

In the previous blog, I wrote about the dynamic of “splitting” – the tendency for some people to see others as all-good or all-bad, and the contagious nature of this highly intense emotional process. This seems to have entered our political process with today’s attack ads. They may seriously split America, unless we realize how this works. Brain research may help explain this process. It appears that we have two basic systems of conflict resolution associated with the right and left hemispheres of our brains. (This dynamic is a different issue from political right and left.) The left brain is where written and spoken word content is mostly processed. Most of the time, researchers say that our left hemisphere is dominant, looking at problem-solving in a logical, detailed manner that is generally associated with mildly positive emotions, such as calmness, contentment and a sense of safety. This is where we tend to store and reflect on specific detailed solutions to previous problems, which helps in planning logical and detailed solutions to new problems.

Our right brain tends to take over when we are in a crisis or face a totally new situation. The right brain tends to respond much more quickly, in a defensive and protective manner – which also shuts down our higher thinking so that we can focus on fight, flight or freeze responses. Such an approach helps save our lives when facing an immediate, life or death problem. This defensive response includes splitting: fast all-or-nothing thinking, intensely negative emotional responses and extreme behaviors (running away, violently attacking or trying to hide). The right brain unconsciously and constantly pays great attention to people’s tone of voice and facial expressions, which are highly contagious during a crisis. Before you realize it, you may start reacting to a situation like those around you (running, fighting), in an effort to strongly defend through group strength. This group defense mechanism (contagious emotions) has saved humans for thousands of years. It’s like emotional Wi-Fi.

Anthropologists believe that modern human beings and our modern human brains have been around for approximately 150,000 years. About 50,000 years ago our vocal chords moved up in our throats, so that we developed the ability for speech and modern verbal language, rather than just grunts and shouts. About 10,000 years ago we moved from primarily being hunter-gatherers to an agrarian culture as farmers. This provided the potential to form much larger communities in stable locations. Then, about 5,000 years ago we developed written language.

This means that for most of our existence on earth we have had a social brain that helped us work together to solve problems, based on emotional Wi-Fi – without the benefit of research and historical analysis of political behavior. For most of our human history and brain development, we have been attracted to leaders based on non-verbal behavior, such as charm, strength, speed, aggression, dominance, and the ability to appear confident and clever. These characteristics are recognized by our right brains – our experts on non-verbal behavior. However, these characteristics can be easily manipulated out of context.

Our left brains have the ability to get the context – to gather a wide range of written information about candidates. We can read history, read about political candidate’s full backgrounds of behavior, and predict much more accurately which candidate will meet our goals in the long-run. Yet, if we don’t understand our right-brain tendency to follow leaders based on appearances of strength, charm and wit, we will resort to electing leaders simply because they are good at grabbing our attention.

Today’s political world of attack ads encourages splitting: simple, emotional, all-or-nothing views of complex problems, by identifying “all-bad” individuals and groups – and attacking them. Human history is filled with this simple mistake. Let’s not let it happen again, now that we are aware of its dynamics.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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