Why some people are more likely to end relationships over politics

The divide in political ideology is drawing much attention lately as this election season raises these issues to a fever pitch. Lately I’ve read a series of articles and personal stories describing how people are ending personal relationships over political disagreements. One article reported a survey result that 15% of people reported recently ending a friendship due to politics and discussions on social media. I’m not among this group; the concept is foreign to me* but I find it fascinating and, of course, a little saddening.

Clearly, some people seem to be more likely to feel upset and end personal relationships over intellectual disagreements and other people, like me, are mostly unaffected by this frequent occurrence.

Why is it that many people do not separate intellectual debate on issues from emotion-based relationships with individuals. It’s that “I can’t be good friends with you if you disagree with me on fundamental issues” mentality. It’s the same sentiment expressed in the New Testament bible verse “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”. In contrast, there are people like me who embrace diversity and seek it out. I’ve actually spent considerable time deliberating on that bible verse and I reject it completely.

In addition, I’ve also written recently about how the level of formal education seems to be highly correlated with political leanings, at least in this election cycle. Is this coincidental or are these factors related? Why does the inability to separate politics from relationships anecdotally appear to be more prevalent in people with lower levels of formal education? At first this seems unlikely; perhaps even a bigoted theory I have spun. Yet I often notice within my own circle of family and friends that those with a higher level of formal education are more likely to be unaffected by inter-personal political disagreements based on ideology. In contrast, those with lower levels of education seem more likely to allow a political disagreement affect their feelings about a relationship.

I have two theories on this issue:

First, the ability to separate intellectual positions and personal feelings is a learned skill that is somehow further developed during the formal education process. Our past experiences, perhaps on a college campus or in the classroom, pre-wire out brain to accept dissenting opinions within a larger community dominated by positive feelings of support and cohesiveness. This theory helps explain my observations of correlation between these otherwise independent factors. Of course I’m not suggesting that formal education is the only path toward increased level of tolerance for dissonance, only that it might be a contributing factor.

Second, I suspect that the willingness to accept a core belief without questioning the underlying factual evidence is a neurological pattern that surfaces more than once in people who are so inclined. Perhaps this explains the strong support for Trump among fundamentalist Christians. Our willingness to embrace a core belief of “Make America great again” isn’t so far removed from the thought process in trusting Jesus as my Lord and savior. Both positions are accepted on the overpowering strength of the ideal and not based on a build-up of factual evidence for that belief.

In contrast, there are people like me who are ingrained with a belief system that encourages them to question everything and reject what does not bear out physical, logical or ethical interrogation. This is the sentiment expressed by Walt Whitman in the preface of Leaves of Grass: “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul”. In my case, this type of critical thinking was further enforced by these principles as a core part of Quaker and Jewish education.

Overall, I conclude that your likelihood of losing a friend this election season depends far more on the core neurological patterns of thought processing of you and your friend than what’s actually happening in the news. This reaction is pre-wired into some people’s brains and is unlikely to change without significant and deliberate cognitive effort. We seldom see that type of learning occur in any large scale is adult populations. So, in other words, we are usually stuck with it or, as Walter Cronkrite said nightly “That’s the way it is”.

*I happen to be among the small minority of people who have undergone years of cognitive therapy in the 2000’s following a traumatic head injury so I tend to be more aware of the issue than most. I recognize that past behavior is usually a strong predictor of future behavior but that that behavior can be changed with deliberate effort.


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