Understanding Polarization In Families, Groups, and Nations

©2020 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

There is much talk today about polarization. Ironically, few people put together the fact that the same process is driving three seemingly unrelated problems. By understanding what is really going on, we should be able to significantly reduce this polarization in our families, groups and nations.

Child Alienation

In many divorcing families (maybe 10-15%), a child is resisting or refusing contact with one of their parents and sees the other parent in ideal terms. This polarization can expand rapidly by the child rejecting grandparents, former family friends and even pets at the rejected parent’s house. Professionals and courts often call this “alienation” and it often grows into what some have called “tribal warfare.” People line up on one side in agreement with the child’s rejection of the other parent (he or she must have done something wrong) and the rejected parent’s people line up on the other side (the favored parent must be alienating the child). They frequently argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other.

Professional Splitting

In mental health hospitals and substance abuse treatment programs, a phenomenon has been occurring for years often known as “staff splitting.” This commonly occurs when a treatment team is working with a patient with a personality disorder, such as borderline personality disorder. Generally, half the team lines up on the side of higher expectations, more structure and more consequences for the negative behavior of the patient. The other half tends to argue for lower expectations, more tolerance and more understanding of the patient’s problems. They frequently argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other. The same phenomenon sometimes occurs in University Departments, legal disputes, religious institutions, and many other work settings.

Political Polarization

In the United States, England, and several other countries, newscasters and political analysts state almost every day that the country is “deeply polarized.” Almost half of the country supports the president and defends whatever he is doing, in terms of his policies, his personal behavior, and his outrageous comments against the establishment and for his team. And almost half of the country opposes the president and is angry with whatever he is doing, in terms of his policies, his personal behavior, and his outrageous statements. These two sides constantly argue with each other, emotions escalate, and some involved start hating each other. 

So, what’s going on here? And why are these three seemingly unrelated situations demonstrating the exact same dynamics? Is there a common element or elements?

Emotional Repetition in Isolation (ERII)

The engine of polarization in each of these settings appears to be emotional repetition in isolation. It’s important to know that polarization is an emotional phenomenon, not a logical phenomenon.

Emotions

Intense emotions grab our brain (especially the amygdala) in a way that declares an emergency and shuts down our logical thinking. An excess of intense emotions triggers anxiety and an inability to manage our emotions. Unmanaged emotions can quickly become contagious, so that when one person exhibits unmanaged and intense emotions, a whole group can start to exhibit heightened emotions, especially including anxiety and anger. When someone often speaks in terms of conflicts, crises, chaos, fear and anger, all of these high-conflict emotions are highly contagious

In divorces, intense emotions are often seen as related to the divorce. But for some, the intensity of their emotions is a symptom of their own problems, not usually someone else’s behavior. “The issue’s not the issue, the personality is the issue.” But many professionals don’t understand this and absolutely believe that something terrible must have been done to an upset child by the other party, especially child abuse, sexual abuse or intentional alienation. The result is that in cases with an anxious child, but no evidence of abusive behavior, professionals become split over the case and more emotional too. The emotional level increases with time and with each court decision that doesn’t address the real problem (the need for self-management skills training for the person(s) with a high-conflict personality).

In professional groups, being on two teams can create extreme behavior. An excellent example of emotions taking over was the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in which the lawyers on each side grew to hate each other. Both sides brought ethics complaints against the other side’s lawyers for their “all-bad” behavior, which were all eventually thrown out.

There are many other examples, even in sports. Historically, there was the tragic case of two teams of chariot racers in the ancient city of Constantinople in the Roman Empire in the sixth century A.D. One group wore blue outfits and the others wore green. Apparently, emotions got so high (including the exaggeration of political and religious differences) that there was a riot between the teams that resulted in the deaths of 3000 blues and over 30,000 greens. Today’s riots after soccer matches just don’t compare.

In politics, we are increasingly seeing candidates for offices at all levels speaking in highly emotional and extreme terms. Candidates with narcissistic personality traits or sociopathic personality traits lack the normal restraints of empathy and remorse, so that they can exaggerate and lie freely. And when political leaders speak in emotionally disparaging terms, there are always some people who will become emotionally hooked and possibly take dangerous actions in response. It’s the hyped-up emotions that seem to drive these events.

Repetition

The way our brains work, repetition strengthens ideas, behavior, and emotions—especially a sense of danger in our amygdala. It’s for our own protection. Today, we are all exposed to more emotional intensity in all three of the settings described above, legal disputes, family disputes and workplace disputes. The reasons vary by the setting.

Our legal system protects extremely emotional statements and behavior when they are part of the legal process. Our workplace standards protect them when it’s part of the innovation process. Our political system protects them when it’s part of the political process. The irony of our freedoms is that they attract those who will abuse them and that our protective systems often cause us to be unprotected from the extreme and repetitive emotions and behavior weeks or months or years in a high-conflict case.

In divorces, the drive for more access to justice for everyone over the past few decades has meant that many more people can come to court than in the past who are expressing less controlled emotions and behavior. Justice is no longer just for the wealthy and professionally restrained. Court procedures and forms have been made easier, court TV has made the machinery of court seem appealing for getting attention, and the court process often rewards extreme statements and dramatic behavior (from pounding on tables to witnesses in tears). Plus, divorce and custody disputes have a right to be brought back to court over and over again, in the best interests of the children. All of this rewards those with much more emotional endurance for conflict and more comfort with publicly humiliating those they used to love.   

In groups, many organizations welcome everyone without any vetting. We tend to take people at face value, so when they repeat and repeat how wonderful they are at something, we tend to believe them. We feel an affinity with those who share our interests, so that we are more tolerant of anyone who joins. More organizations today have members from all over, with little-known histories, rather than those who we already know from years in our family or community. Mobility can be a mixed blessing. It allows people with more emotional expression and extreme behavior to more easily fool us with their internet images and excessive talk.

In politics, repetition is the name of the game. Ads on TV used to be everything, but now social media giants are playing a bigger role too, with the capacity to spread emotional messages worldwide in seconds. Research shows that false messages are much more viral (because they are usually more emotional). They are repeated faster and more widely than the boring truth. Often those with more unmanaged and intense emotions talk more. And emotional messages of Us-against-Them tend to do particularly well, when repeated and repeated.

In Isolation

Perhaps the most peculiar and powerful aspect of polarization is that when a team only hears one message blaming another person or group for a problem, it adopts it as true whether it is or not. It is absorbed by our brains without even thinking. It becomes part of the accepted feeling of the family, group or national culture. When people say, “the child is angry at so-and-so” or “the voters are angry at so-and-so,” is it because they independently feel that way or they have absorbed it from emotional repetition in isolation?

In alienation cases, the resistance of a child grows when he or she is placed with an anxious and angry parent for most or all of the parenting time for weeks or months. This is a frequent occurrence in court cases when such a parent makes vague allegations of abuse. “Just to be safe, let’s place the child with the parent who reported the abuse until we find out what’s going on.” This has turned out to be a big mistake in many cases, because of their isolated exposure to the repeated emotional messages of that anxious and angry parent. This isn’t to say there aren’t cases of real abuse, but there are also so many that aren’t and are instead to excessive fears of an anxious and angry parent.

It’s far better to order supervised contact with an alleged abusive parent, than to order “No contact.” Many alienation cases start with No Contact orders. For safety purposes, almost all serious abuse allegations can be handled with supervised contact, which also allows the parent and child interactions to be observed before the child is “tainted” by the other parent’s repetition of his or her own viewpoint, emotions and behavior in isolation.

In groups, the effect of hearing only one side of a situation tends to make it grow. The team believes in it stronger, becomes more confident in publicly expressing it, and is more likely to resist any information that contradicts the adopted view. Furthermore, they will defend the adopted viewpoint, no matter how wrong it may be. In other words, factual challenges by an outsider against the team’s false information won’t change their minds, it will instead strengthen their defense against the challenge.

“But as people gain confidence, they usually become more extreme in their beliefs… With respect to group polarization, the key point is that agreement from others tends to increase confidence and, through that route, to increase extremism. It is partly for this reason, then, like-minded people, having deliberated with one another, become surer that they are right and thus more extreme.”

In politics, emotional repetition in isolation can be seen in all of the historical cases of dictators. They immediately took control of the media and bent it to their purposes. Hitler was the first to use the newly developed radio to speak endlessly to the German people. The Nazi’s handed out radios in the 1930’s to the general public, with only one station it could receive. When Joe McCarthy led Senate hearings searching for communists in the federal government on the newly developed television in the 1950’s, he had no one to oppose him on this new medium in any meaningful way for five years.

Before the tragic bloodshed against hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1990’s, there was one-sided radio commentary for a few years dividing the Hutus and Tutsis, who used to mostly get along at the personal level. Likewise, when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990’s, there was war between religious groups who had previously gotten along peacefully. In all of these cases, it appears that there were some extremely emotional people driving the divisions over separate radio stations that led to bloodshed. Some leaders were tried and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Yet the people self-selected their isolated messages by hearing only one side of the political and religious commentary that led to war.   

What Can We Do?

The solution to polarization appears to be in several areas:

1. Calming the emotions of the conflict.

We can calm ourselves when we hear opposing viewpoints, such as by paying attention to our breathing and telling ourselves that it helps to learn another person’s perspective. Sometimes repeating a key phrase to ourselves as we listen can calm us, such as “It’s only their point of view.” “I might learn something new.”

2. Treating others with Empathy, Attention and Respect.

There is no time when we should allow ourselves to stop treating each other with empathy, attention and respect (EAR statements). We can disagree while still respecting each other. It’s easy to see someone with an opposing viewpoint as stupid or evil, when in fact it is much more about the dynamics described in this article: emotional repetition in isolation. We should think of them as being raised with a different language, like French or German, because that’s all they were exposed to.

3. Keep our comments in writing Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.

In today’s world of internet communication it’s easy to express ourselves in extreme ways without any immediate consequences. By emphasizing brief statements, we avoid triggering other people’s upset emotions or misunderstanding of what we really mean. By being simply informative—providing straight and simple information—we avoid the problems of emotionally defending ourselves in aggressive ways that trigger an escalation in the other person’s emotions. And in many cases, we don’t even need to respond. A friendly tone can help, and ending the angry conversation is what we mean by “firm.” Move on to what’s important going forward, instead of arguing endlessly about the past.

4. Getting our information from multiple sources.

Emotional repetition in isolation is unhelpful and unnecessary in the modern world. We just have to make sure that we don’t let ourselves slip into one-sided sources of information. Whether its in families, workgroups or national politics, it helps to listen to other perspectives so that we understand where others are coming from. Now that we know the problem isn’t stupidity or evilness, we can listen and think, rather than attacking and defending. Challenge emotional messages for their accuracy. Don’t let them become absorbed by your emotional brain without thinking. Recognize repetition for what it is.

5. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

In political commentary, news sources are allowed to present just one point of view and repeat it endlessly. This wasn’t always the case. Until the 1990’s, the Fairness Doctrine required radio and television stations with a federal communications license to provide opposing viewpoints on editorial comments and political candidates. “Point-Counterpoint” was a staple of news organizations using the public airways. If this was brought back, we might find that we are sharing the same news and much less likely to build up the emotional divisions that we now have. They won’t end with any particular election so long as divisive messages can continue to be promoted on emotional, face and voice media. In the meantime, it’s up to all of us to get our information from multiple sources.

Conclusion

The engine of polarization is emotional repetition in isolation (ERII). These emotional messages hook your brain. Repetition comes from talking about or hearing too much about the same themes about the other team, so these thoughts get stuck in your head like a TV commercial. They come to feel true. It’s in isolation when you don’t hear other points of view that you become more willing to fight about them.

The answers, of course, include challenging the emotional messages for their accuracy. Don’t let them become absorbed by your emotional brain without thinking. Recognize repetition for what it is. And the best way to avoid emotional repetition is to get multiple points of view. In alienation cases, make sure the child has realistic time with both parents and teach them to avoid purely negative statements about each other. In group situations, watch out for lots of statements of emotional blame of others and watch out for professional splitting. In politics, make sure you get your information from multiple media sources and avoid slipping into an all-or-nothing, Us-against-Them point of view.

Remember, polarization is emotional, not logical, with an excessive amount of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged or intense emotions, and extreme solutions to problems. Polarization doesn’t come from issues and it isn’t about problem solving. It’s unnecessary in any setting, once you understand how it works. Yet it takes all of our strong efforts to resist it. It’s up to us.


BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

[i] Janet R. Johnston and Linda E. G. Campbell, Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict (New York: The Free Press, 1988).

[ii] Marsha M. Linehan, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (New York: Guilford Press, 1993).

[iii] Dean Pruitt, Jeffrey Rubin, et al., Social Conflict Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2004), 30.

[iv] Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), 84.

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