Two politician-looking stick figures standing in the puddle of a melting brain.
Hi there,

Somehow, we're on the cusp of the holiday season, and I've been reminiscing about what this time of year was like when I was a kid. All our family gatherings followed the same, time-honored formula: all the kids in one room, unleashing a torrent of festivity-fuelled mayhem on one another, and the adults in another, sat around a table, most often discussing politics. 

Back then, I remember wondering why somebody would waste precious energy discussing something as dull as fiscal policy. But now that I, too, am an adult, I have realized that talking about politics is an inescapable fact of life. By that I mean, the second somebody brings up politics, a switch somewhere in the adult brain flips, and you are compelled to engage. One minute you’re having a perfectly nice time snacking on cocktail shrimp; the next, you're forced to confront the incompetence and lunacy of the people who govern your society, and you are sucked into a vortex of bitterness, rage, and opinions that you have no choice but to inflict on the people around you. (Just me?) 

Regardless of your voting record, politics feels particularly mind-melting these days (as one might expect when one is living in a world that has been described as “post-truth”). We’ve all heard about how echo chambers and confirmation bias as driving increased polarization. But how else does politics distort our thought processes and our beliefs about the world? In this newsletter, we’re exploring this question from a behavioral perspective.

Until next time,
Katie and the melty-brained team @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀
🧠 Deep Dive: Your Brain on Politics
🇮🇹 Field Notes: When in Rome
🛑 Viewpoints: Stop and Think
🧠 Deep Dive: Your Brain on Politics

Politics can warp our logical reasoning… In a recent study, researchers showed participants a series of logical arguments and asked them to judge how accurate they were. They found that people were better at evaluating arguments when the correct answer was aligned with their political beliefs.

… and drive our perceptions. We tend to see the world in a way that’s consistent with our existing political beliefs. Case in point: in one 2009 study, participants from across the political spectrum sat down to watch The Colbert Report. Everybody came away thinking that the show represented their own beliefs: liberals interpreted Colbert’s character as a satire of Republicans, while conservatives thought that he was “only pretend[ing] to be joking” and was in fact speaking truth to power.

Our politics may be shaped by our brains. Neuroscientists have found a number of differences between conservative and liberal brains. For instance, the amygdala — an area of the brain related to processing threats — is larger in conservatives. But this reason is correlational, so we don’t yet know if our brains decide our politics or vice versa.
🇮🇹  FIELD NOTES: When in Rome

In 2019, the City of Rome invested millions of euros in urban beautification. The aim was to revitalize the city and improve civic life for its 3 million inhabitants. Officials created the #ROMADECIDE campaign to encourage citizens to vote in the city’s participatory budget, so that everybody could help decide how to beautify Rome. But the city’s residents needed an extra nudge to get engaged with the process. 

TDL developed a messaging strategy for the city, harnessing behavioral insights to get ordinary Romans excited about civic engagement. To request a copy of the case study, click here.


A photo of Vatican City, Rome.
🛑 Stop and Think

It’s clear that our politics affect our thought processes, and not always for the better. There are many other behavioral mechanisms at play that we don’t have space to get into here, but suffice it to say that these dynamics are driving increased polarization and political strife. 

So what can we do about it? One promising solution is to just give people a nudge to think things through. It’s long been believed that System 2 thinking — that’s the deliberate, analytical kind — is to blame for skewed political reasoning. As this theory goes, our brains engage in motivated reasoning to make new information fit into our existing beliefs. However, more recent research has found the main problem isn’t motivated reasoning; it’s a lack of any reasoning at all. We just don’t think very hard about the political information we come across, especially if it’s already aligned with our ideology. That makes us prone to misinformation.

While that might sound depressing at first, this finding is actually kind of hopeful. It means that if we can nudge people to think more carefully about what they read, we might be able to correct some of the ill effects that politics has on our thought processes. Some experimental interventions rolled out by Twitter are already showing promise.


A bar graph showing that in America, as individuals' politics diverge from those of their local community, they feel less attached to that community.
How politics affects community attachment. Gap score is difference between respondent’s ideology on six-point scale, and their perception of the ideological leanings of people in their local area. Source: Gallup/Knight Foundation, June-July 2019
Cognitive dissonance

We're wired to strive for consistency between our beliefs and our actions. When politics is involved, that can skew our decision-making for the worse. Learn more about this bias on the TDL website.

Opportunities in Behavioral Science
TDL is hiring! We’re looking for UX Designers and a Senior UX Designer to join our team, as well as an Operations Associate. Find out more by visiting our careers portal.
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