Here’s the thing about social media. No matter what the message might be, there will be multiple interpretations of it. Often, the most extreme interpretations will be diametrically opposed to each other. It’s stunning how the very same content can illustrate the vast ideological divides that separate us.
I’ve realized that the only explanation for this is that our brains must work differently. We’re not even talking apples and oranges here. This is more like ostrich eggs and vacuum cleaners.
This is not my own revelation. There’s a lot of science behind it. An article in Scientific American catalogs some of the difference between conservative and liberal brains. Even the actual structure is different. According to the article: “The volume of gray matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in liberals. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives.”
We have to understand that a right-leaning brain operates very differently than a left-leaning brain. Recent neuro-imaging studies have shown that they can consider the very same piece of information and totally different sections of their respective brains light up. They process information differently.
In a previous post about this topic, I quoted biologist and author Robert Sapolsky as saying, “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”
Or, to sum it up in plain language: “Conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”
This has never been clearer than in the past year. Typically, the information being processed by a conservative brain would have little overlap with the information being processed by a liberal brain. Each would care and think about different things.
But COVID-19 has forced the two circles of this particular Venn diagram together, creating a bigger overlap in the middle. We are all focused on information about the pandemic. And this has created a unique opportunity to more directly compare the cognitive habits of liberals versus conservatives.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in the way each group defines morality. At the risk of a vast oversimplification, the right tends to focus on individual rights, especially those they feel they're personally are at risk of losing. The left thinks more in terms of societal obligations: What do we need to do -- or not do -- for the greater good of us all? To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, conservatives ask what their country can do for them; liberals ask what they can do for their country.
This theory is part of Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. What Haidt, working with others, has found is that both the right and left have morals, but they are defined differently. This “moral pluralism” means that two people can look at the same social media post but take two entirely different messages from it. And both will insist their interpretation is the correct one. Liberals can see a post about getting a vaccine as an appeal to their concern for the collective well being of their community. Conservatives see it as an attack on their personal rights.
So when we ask a question like “Can social media ease the path to herd immunity?” we run into the problem of message interpretation. For some, it will be preaching to the choir. For others, it will have the same effect as a red cape in front of a bull.
It's interesting that the vaccine question is being road-blocked by this divide between rights and obligations. It shows just how far the two sides are apart. With a vaccine, at least both sides have skin in the game. Getting a vaccine can save your life, no matter how you vote. Wearing a face mask is a different matter.
In my lifetime, I have never seen a more overt signaling of ideological leanings than whether you choose to wear a face mask or not. When we talk about rights vs obligations, this is the ultimate acid test. If I insist on wearing a mask, as I do, I’m not wearing if for me, I’m wearing it for you. It’s part of my obligation to my community. But if you refuse to wear a mask, it’s pretty obvious who you’re focused on.
The thing that worries me the most about this moral dualism is that a moral fixation on individual rights is not sustainable. It’s assuming that our society is a zero-sum game. In order for me to win, you must lose. If we focus instead on our obligations, we approach society with an abundance mentality. As we contribute, we all benefit.
At least, that’s how my brain sees it.