The Psychology of American Political Polarization (and how to fix it)

Christopher Demetrakos
11 min readJan 9, 2021

“Chris-Craft boats are crap. They are complete garbage,” said LH.

I was 17 years old, had just been rushed into a fraternity at my university and LH, a member of my rush class, was emphatically expounding the degree of suck of this particular boat brand. I didn’t know anything about boats and couldn’t tell one from the next. But his vitriol stuck in my head, exactly as it should according to my evolutionary brain wiring: bad news is critical to survival. Then something odd happened. I started seeing boats on trailers, checking the brand, and reaffirming in my impressionable young psyche: yeah, look at that piece of crap Chris-Craft boat. And why shouldn’t I? This data point could mean life or death, said my primal brain, maybe even save me from drowning. This continued for a few years until I was deep enough into my psychology degree that some introspection allowed me a glimmer of rationality, and overboard went the mental jetsam of LH’s asinine hatred of a boat brand.

Sidenote: Chris-Craft boats may be the dog’s bollocks. After all, the Narcissus Effect is in full play here, given the commonality in nomenclature I share with this brand. No offense intended, Chris-Craft. I ever buy a boat, I’m calling you up. [fist bump]

Also at work was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency illusion. It states: “…after noticing something for the first time, there is a tendency to notice it more often.” This happens after you buy a car, for example, you start seeing that car everywhere. If something becomes even moderately relevant, then it will slip past the riddle-asking cave trolls that guard the drawbridge to your brain. We are wired to look for commonalities with others, a car, a watch, that magical one piece she is also wearing. Having something in common with others allows us to bond. Imagine how this applies to your political views.

Ford vs. Chevy

If you are from any rural American town, you know this debate. Young men will beat the shit out of each other arguing over the superiority of one brand of truck vs. another. They arrange themselves in social cliques according to brand preference and ownership.

If you are in Glasgow, Scotland, you are Rangers or you are Celtic, and crossing lines will result in bloodletting. Yours. Or worse. It’s football, mate, not the American kind. But Americans love to laugh at soccer violence and say, “What? Jesus, it’s just soccer. They don’t wear pads or helmets, they just kick a ball around. What’s wrong with those people?” But the issue is one of identity and survival.

Young black American men in urban environments — we like to think of solidarity, of this being your moment in history. Alas, if you are wearing the wrong color on the wrong block in the wrong city it will cost you your life. I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking, king of my jungle just a gangster stalking… Kinda reminds me of a song. Let me grab an iced tea…

Now, the insidious ideology of red vs blue has infiltrated every corner of America, wiring synapses in very specific, unproductive, and inhuman ways. It’s the last part that should piss you off.


Human beings are predisposed to tribalism. Understanding why requires only that you imagine yourself cornered in an alley with a gang of Dwayne Johnson-esque thugs ambulating their significantly greater body mass toward you whilst signalling evil intent by way of angry facial expressions. And numchuks. Run.

Now imagine yourself with your own gang. Maybe a large-ish group of Jedi, replete with purple saber-toting Samuel L. Which scenario contains the highest probability of your survival?

Tribalism is not limited to us. Wolves hunt in packs, and elephants joyfully gather around newborns both in protection and celebration. We must survive and the tribe is key.

Our Homo sapiens ancestors triumphed over the Neanderthal not because we were more intelligent, but because we are tribal and they solitary. Our superior level of cooperation empowered us to divide and conquer, and now the uppermost, final link in the food chain has our name on it. If you are the one person on the planet who has not read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, I encourage you to do so, book in one hand, mirror in the other.

The prime directive of our DNA is to survive long enough to replicate itself, and we are neurologically wired to tend heavily to that eventuality. We form groups of us and them to (irrationally) affirm that we are chosen and special, to feel secure, that we are endowed with comparatively higher qualities and abilities, and dammit, this Ford truck/Raiders jersey/MAGA hat is the obvious evidence. This is a cognitive tendency called illusory superiority.

We then actively look for evidence that we are right in our choices, called confirmation bias.

Harley Owner’s Group, aka HOGs, or BMW owners vs. Audi owners, they group together to affirm that they made the right choice, they are of the superior tribe. Once membership in this tribe has satisfied their need for security and superiority, the Semmelweis reflex kicks in, or the tendency to reject information that contradicts the dominant tribal paradigm.

This explains the reason for the move from unbiased news “without fear or favor” of CNN and Fox News to only a steady stream of tribe-validating sensationalism. The unbiased portion became superfluous as political polarization increased. People do not like to have their faith challenged. Around and around swings the perpetual motion feedback loop of affirming and reaffirming how right your tribe are, and how utterly wrong the other guys are.

“I cannot believe how stupid they are, seriously,” should have been the phrase of 2020. Instead, it was “can you hear me now?

Nature vs. Nurture: the critical mass needed to change tribes

In 1973 Stockholm, presumably after a plate of meatballs, a group robbed a bank and took four hostages. Bad robbers, poor victims. Right? Through the experience, the captives developed empathy for their captors and elected to not testify against them at the trial. This phenomenon is called Stockholm syndrome. Patty Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, just one year later, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and ultimately joined them.

Wait, what? How can this be? Are we not comprised of Rambo-hard, immutable beliefs and convictions passed to us by our Catholic/Muslim/American/Conservative/Vegetarian tribes? We toss out platitudes like “no matter what!” Or “This is who I am!” Don’t country singers stand on stage and wax effusive about “if loving my country and my god is a crime, then I am guilty as charged,” creating a stadium of cotton candy hairdos and big belt buckle empathy soup? Are we really that malleable, that adaptable?


Imagine a Ford truck boy moving to a new town, where everyone owns a Chevy. What now? Imagine a metalhead kid moving to a new high school where they only listen to hip hop. Imagine a Red Sox fan Bostonian moving to New York (ok, scratch that, there are some lines you don’t cross). Ye, of contrary ideals and allegiances, are now faced with a primal brain-level choice:
1. Stand up for your ideals and risk ostracism — and possibly death — from the local tribe.
2. Abandon your ideals in favor of espousing theirs and gaining the benefits of membership, primary of which is survival.

I’ll let you guess, based on aforementioned DNA prime directive, which is the overwhelming favorite choice.
Exhibit A: Athelstan, a Christian monk of North Umbria, after being captured by vikings Travis Flimmel and Gustaf Skarsgård, renounced Christ to worship Odin, Thor, and Frigg. A psyche like silly putty. Hail Ragnar.

Changing Context

Our tribal affiliations are only valid in context. A Crip and a Blood will fight to the death on the streets of Compton. But in the trenches of Afghanistan, they are of the same tribe and will exhibit the highest levels of cooperation. Setting aside differences in that context will greatly increase the probability of survival for both of them.

A Lebanese friend told me of a documentary called Promises in which Israeli and Palestinian kids play together and become friends, as kids do. Nary a mention by these kids to each other what their political/ideological affiliations are. It was out of context.

We are highly adaptive organisms, our psyches are running like operating systems, and it is our job to make sure they are up to date and contain the best, highest quality possible software, metaphorically speaking. The examples above, like Stockholm syndrome, prove this point. You are what you eat (and doom scroll).

NATURE vs. NURTURE: The Road Back to Civility

I live in central Tokyo. I had a conversation with a relative in the US this morning. It went something like this:
“Buy a gun!” He said.

“They are illegal here. Even if you want a hunting rifle you need to store it at the police station.”

“Oh man, that would not work in this red state.”

“You would be surprised what works. We have socialized medicine, for example. I had two MRI scans done, and it cost me two hundy, not thousands like it would in the states,” I said.

“Ew, socialism. That would not work over here,” he said.

“And yet, we as a species share 99.99999% of our DNA, bleed red, enjoy good food, love our kids, prefer laughter to tears, and are still Homo sapiens. The word socialism is anathema to American sensibilities, I know. But you yourself practice it now. You don’t charge your family for dinners. Nor do you charge members of your church at your events. You all cooperate, and the scale of your own socialism is a matter of concentric circles. How far out can you take them? What if a whole town cooperated in this way? It would be your dream come true, like Little House on the Prairie. And by doing so you could drain your proverbial swamp in no time by being autonomous, right?”

The silence told me his mental gears were turning.

“It’s just a matter of mental software,” I continued. “Here in Japan, wearing a mask is de rigeur. I have been here for decades watching people wear masks when they had a cold or allergies, there are zero political overtones in doing so. But in the US, it carries a meaning assigned by ideological groups of people and lines of social media rhetoric. This perception difference is only a matter of mental software, a construct, a paradigm. Change the software you change perception. Change perception and you change behavior.”

Notwithstanding his penchant for the Semmelweis reflex he actually considered what I had to say.

We are one species on one planet, and cooperating is in our best interest. How strong are your beliefs and convictions? Go somewhere else and be among people who are different, depend on those people, and you’ll see just how paper flimsy they are.


Jon Snow. (Had to. I am the scorpion on the frog’s back.)
But it’s true. Step one in this 12-step program back to unification and civility is admitting that you don’t know anything.

“Hi, I’m Christopher and I know nothing.”

“Hi Christopher.”

Do you know for certain there is a deep state? No, you saw it in an email.
Do you look at a website called Snopes? Not proof of anything, even if Uncle Cliburn tells you it is.
Do you know Trump is evil? Do you know the democrats are pedophiles? No. You don’t.
Which then raises the question: seriously, people what on god’s green earth are you fighting for?

I’m in advertising, and I can say from experience that all this tumult could be orchestrated to get you all to hate each other. Joke’s on you. Boy, do you all look stupid now. But then…I don’t know.

Think in Probabilities

Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what a man don’t know that gets him in trouble, it’s what he knows for certain that just ain’t so.

That’s us. Admit it.
I am not going to give you a lesson in statistics here, but I encourage you to learn what a confidence interval is. This simple mental model will help you assess the probability of any assertion, and allow you, if necessary, to file it in your shiny new folder labeled It Just Ain’t So.

Let’s try one out, Hamlet: to wear a mask or not wear a mask? That is the question.

Do you know with 100% certainty that the coronavirus is a hoax perpetrated by Bill Gates?

No. You don’t.

Are you willing to suffer the slings and arrows, staying with the allusion, of a painful or even deadly stint of respiratory infirmity to make a political statement because of your tribal affiliation? Only you can answer that. But let me help you.

Pascal’s Wager states that it is a much safer bet to believe in God because doing so is relatively simple and painless when laid next to the consequences: burning in hell for eternity. By the same logic, so is wearing a mask. Yet…

The reason we don’t is due to the 5th of five base fears common to all of us:

1. Extinction: fear of no longer existing, death.
2. Mutilation: losing a body part or bodily integrity.
3. Loss of autonomy: fear of losing our freedom or otherwise being controlled.
4. Separation: abandonment, rejection.
5. Ego death: humiliation or embarrassment.

Oh no, if I wear a mask, what will the other members of my tribe think? Ego death. Possibly ostracism, which is separation, which could then lead to el numero uno, muerte. This largely non-conscious train of thought and decision-making, all over a face covering. It sounds nonsensical, but the human mind is anything but sensical. We need to learn how to surf this irrationality with greater grace and dexterity.

Why did Fox News abandon Trump?

The answer is the same as the metalhead in the hip hop high school scenario above. Fox News and Uncle Rupert have a choice:

1. Stick to their ideals and risk extinction in the face of tribal dissolution.

2. Espouse the ideals of the other tribe and risk a modicum of ego death.

Neither option is ideal, but one option guarantees survival, especially now that their previous tribe is leaderless and scattering. No more confirmation bias, and you know how the rest plays out.

We Need Each Other: Forming Our Own Tribe

Sinan Aral, in his book, The Hype Machine, said that fake news spreads 60% faster than unbiased news. “Wow!” Said everyone, then kept scrolling. However, given the above, you now understand the reason why. And we also understand how it is that we have become rabid, salivating primal creatures ready to do battle with our neighbors over a hat or a bumper sticker. Tribalism fueled by base fears.

The political tribalism in the United States was built on heresay, conjecture, rumor, sensationalism, and forwarded emails from our elders, capitalizing on how our brains are wired for bad news, like pronghorns keeping watch for wolves. We can transcend this automated programming, and we must.

We all think we are right and will look for evidence that proves it, eschewing all evidence to the contrary. 400 billion bits of information are available to your brain every second, but only 2000 are processed. Your neocortex, the organ that gave us SpaceX and the Xbox, can only process a paltry 50 bits per second. With that kind of math, it’s an easy conclusion that yeah, oh captain my captain, you probably missed something. Be ok with the probability that you are wrong about a lot. You’ll risk ego death, one of our primary fears, but get over it. Your survival, happiness, and the creation of our own stronger, more stable tribe depends on it.

We can change the context of our thinking from blue/red to “local.” Build the concentric circles, help the politically charged to stop doom scrolling while drinking straight from the bottle, stop forwarding emails, stop watching the news, stop talking about it, and start talking community, helping hands, compassion, and the tribe that is comprised of those around you. Redefine the commonalities from politics to we the people of this place. Then expand the circle, because you just don’t know anything with 100% certainty. Further, with the strength of community, whichever color is in the White House, you can scrutinize at all times and act together (like the French), increasing your chances of preventing tomfoolery by 100% now that your only color is local and neighborly.

Understand how your brain works, understand how you have been programmed and why, and make the conscious choice to belong to a better tribe, one that ultimately includes all of us.



Christopher Demetrakos

Neuroscientist, architect of PsyCom, the new marketing framework-trigger consumer decision. Founder & CEO of & Inquiries: