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Understanding the Ideological Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives: Is it Possible for Us to Get Along?

Journalist Chris Mooney discusses his new book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Reject Science -- and Reality."

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JH: And their fear centers are more developed, right?

CM: The eyes are going to the scarier, threatening things. Then they go to the brain and there are a couple of studies that find conservatives either seem to be using more or in some study just have a larger right amygdala, which is known to be the brain's fear center. I talk about this in the book and one of the researches on the amygdala explains that the amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It's a very old part of the brain that you find across the mammal kingdom. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat where you cease to process information rationally and you're moving automatically to protect yourself. It's very good that we have this thing, and it's not surprising that we would have it.

JH: Let's pivot to how this plays out in our political discourse, in our debates, in our often contentious and increasingly unpleasant politics in this country. What is hot and cool reasoning? What is the difference between these two things?

CM: Hot reasoning is basically emotional reasoning. By the way, most of us are mostly doing hot reasoning, I think. There are two sort of systems of reasoning is the current thinking about how the brain works. Hot means that you're impelled to reason by things you are not aware of consciously, which are emotional reactions to situations, stimuli, or threatening arguments. And then you reason in a way that the emotions compel you to. Cold reasoning is theoretically the idea that somehow you manage to be not emotional, which is a hard thing to achieve based on the way we now know about how the brain works, which is that the emotional systems work faster and they tag everything emotionally.

JH: And in terms of the practical consequences of this, there is not a conservative/liberal divide over a fact that is not challenged that is not contested. We can all agree that it's going to be sunny tomorrow when the forecasters tell us that. Then you get into some of these contentious issues, you talk about climate change, and it becomes different. This is the basic issue. The thing that makes the polarizing issues more difficult to win on the basis of factual arguments.

CM: People can't be dispassionate anymore as soon as an issue affects their values because values are part of the identity and they've been going through their life emotionally tagging their world so that it fits their values. There's things I like and there's things that I don't like, and we all have slightly different things. As soon as you've got one of them that's got all this emotional resonance for a person, and that comes to be the point of focus, then you expect hot reasoning to occur. You expect defensive reasoning to occur.

I was just on MSNBC, and they had one conservative on the panel, S.E. Cupp. As soon as she responded to my argument she said, "I find this infuriating!" And I think, here we go. This is going to be hot reasoning. This is going to be emotion. You can tell by the tone in which a person talks. You can tell by giveaway words, like "infuriating." That's a pretty obvious one. Sometimes it's more subtle than that.

JH: Now let's get into something that's more of an ideological difference, or a difference that correlates with ideological differences. You talked about how conservatives are much more concerned with or respond much more to loyalty to the team, to the in-group versus the out-group, than the liberals. How does that distinction play out in our everyday discourse, because I know it's true with me. I don't have as much a sense of team. I don't have as much reverence for tradition and authorities. How does that impact our everyday political circus?

 
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