Splitting America (Part 3/3): The Distorting Role of the Media

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Mitt Romney won the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday, after spending nearly $7 million in the past week by his election committee and his SuperPac. The day before, Rick Santorum, one of the losing candidates, complained: “We deserve better than the gutter politics that we’ve been seeing in this race.” Newt Gingrich, who came in second, complained: “He can bury me for a very short time with four or five or six times as much money,” as he announced he will continue to stay in the race until the nominating convention. Gingrich is the one who was leading in the polls in Iowa until Romney’s SuperPac knocked him out with an extra $4 million in the last week of the race there. People may recall that SuperPacs are a new creation in American politics, following the deregulation of campaign spending by the U. S. Supreme Court in the “Citizens United” decision. Ironically, the conservatives (Gingrich, Santorum and Paul) seek less regulation and less government – yet they all got trounced by this deregulation of Presidential elections. I don’t know if any one of them are high-conflict people (HCPs), but a characteristic of HCPs is that they work aggressively against their own self-interest, because they lack self-awareness of how their own behavior creates their own problems.  

What’s amazing about all of this is that everyone complains about negative attack ads, and yet voters seem to follow them completely and all candidates use them when they get desperate. Gingrich said several weeks ago that he would stay positive. It didn’t work, so he went negative – and had a surge in Iowa (temporarily). Romney said he would stay positive. It didn’t work, so he too went negative – and won. Why?  Because they work! But why do they work so well, when it’s so obvious that they are a simple manipulation of voter opinion, driven by cold cash rather than thorough policy discussions?

As I mentioned in the previous parts of this 3-part series, our human brains are susceptible to the “splitting dynamic” – in a crisis we view people as all-good or all-bad, with no grey areas and with an emotional intensity which is highly contagious but uninformed. In a crisis, the defensive thinking of our right brains becomes dominant, which includes shutting down our usually logical thinking and switching to all-or-nothing thinking and intense emotions, which energize us for extreme defensive behavior (fight, flight or freeze).

Research shows that the amygdala in our right brains (there’s one in each hemisphere of our brains) is highly sensitive to facial expressions of fear and anger. The amygdala can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response within 6 milliseconds (thousandths of a second), which is much faster than you can realize it is happening.  Research on college students in London, England, shows that students who identify as strongly conservative tend to have a larger right amygdala, while students who identify as strongly liberal tend to have a larger left anterior cingulate cortex, which helps the brain tolerate conflicting ideas.

This doesn’t mean that conservatives or liberals are better, but rather that people respond differently to incoming information. In reality, we need both as a society, because there are times when there is a clear and present danger – and conservatives may spot it first. There are also times when tolerating conflict is essential, so that we need to pay attention to liberals who don’t over-react, so that we don’t create a crisis unnecessarily. The hard part is being able to tell a real crisis from an imaginary crisis, or from a situation that needs attention but needs more patient and logical analysis.

This is where the media comes into this discussion. Modern visual media (TV screens, movie screens, computer screens) has the capability to distort and manipulate our amygdalas by presenting facial expressions of fear and anger, intense emotions, and all-or-nothing thinking (heroes and villains), which shuts down logical analysis – all without us being aware of it. Thus, we see one candidate surge when he (or she) “sounds the alarm” that we are in great danger (from “the government,” from Newt Gingrich, from Mitt Romney, from Ron Paul, from Barrack Obama, from vulture capitalists, etc.). This alerts the right amygdala and the right brain to take protective, defensive action. Voters suddenly surge with this candidate. But then logic starts to settle in and the emotional surge subsides. Then money is poured into the race in the last week, and the surge goes in the other direction. The net effect is a quick win for one, and then voter disenchantment and alienation. This will create more surges and less analysis, as print media falls far behind and TV news media cut true reporting budgets to focus on slick and lucrative ads.

It took our nation 30 years from the time the Surgeon General determined cigarettes were harmful, before they were fully banned on TV. I hope it’s not another 30 years before we learn that attack ads are truly harmful to our nation’s health.

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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