We Can Reduce Polarization by Challenging These Instincts

The Solutionary Way book cover

The following blog post has been adapted from Zoe Weil’s upcoming book, The Solutionary Way: Transform Your Life, Your Community, and the World for the Better, coming out on June 25, 2024. You can pre-order the book now. 

The late Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness, describes ten instincts that steer us away from objectively evaluating our societies and our systems. Some of these instincts may have evolved to protect us and the groups with which we identify, and yet they can also undermine our ability to engage in meaningful problem-solving with others. In these polarized times, it’s worth challenging these instincts so that we can collaborate to solve the problems we face instead of constantly arguing about them. 

Of the ten instincts Rosling identifies, five are particularly insidious when it comes to inhibiting bridge-building for successful problem-solving:

1. The Gap Instinct

This instinct refers to our propensity to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap between them: us versus them. Either/or thinking typically ensues, and once we have created this binary mindset, we tend to lose a “we” perspective. Binary thinking often results in the belief that one side of the debate is “good,” and the other side is “bad,” with little room for considering a variety of perspectives. Such thinking can then become a reinforcing feedback loop as we seek to continually bolster our side, which in turn further discourages us from collaborating across divides to solve problems.

2. The Negativity Instinct 

This instinct describes our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. The result is that we often believe that most things are getting worse even if much has improved. In my own lifetime, I’ve witnessed advances in so many arenas, from human rights to a significant reduction in poverty and improvements in healthcare to a widespread belief that ecosystems should be protected and animals shouldn’t be mistreated. Noticing what is good is not a cause for complacency; rather it’s an acknowledgment that things can be bad and better at the same time, and if they can be better, they can be better still. Such recognition provides a dose of evidence-based optimism to spur efforts to collaborate to build a truly just, humane, and sustainable future for everyone.

3. The Generalization Instinct 

This instinct refers to our tendency to group together things, people, or countries regardless of their differences. If you find yourself talking about a group (whether political, ideological, national, religious, ethnic, geographical, or based on class or profession) with sweeping generalities, it is likely because of this instinct. The Generalization Instinct reinforces stereotypes and stymies bridge-building by discouraging us from seeking a range of perspectives and thereby gaining more nuanced understanding. Without such understanding, finding solutions to problems that a large majority can agree upon becomes more difficult.

4. The Single Perspective 

This instinct describes our tendency to focus on a single cause or perspective when it comes to understanding problems in the world. This instinct is reinforced when we consume only the media and listen only to information from groups and individuals that support our existing belief systems. With only one perspective to inform our thinking, we limit our capacity to stay open to different ideas as well as diminish our own creativity and desire to collaborate across divides and reduce polarization. The more we resist the single perspective instinct and increase our exposure to a range of perspectives, the greater the possibilities for cooperation. 

5. The Blame Instinct

This instinct refers to our tendency to find a clear, simple reason why something bad has happened. Succumbing to this instinct may be psychologically soothing and deflect discomfort, but it keeps us divided and may actually perpetuate “bad things” if we double down on simplistic causes that prevent complex systems thinking – a necessary component of solving problems in ways that do the most good and least harm for everyone including other species and the environment. The Blame Instinct can also keep us from recognizing our own complicity in problems as well as our own agency in developing solutions.

Cultivate a Solutionary Instinct

Recognizing these innate instincts within ourselves is key to resisting them and developing what I call a solutionary instinct that enables us to perceive problems as solvable and spurs us to solve them. As we cultivate a solutionary instinct we are more likely to:

  • avoid either/or thinking and focus on solutionary thinking, which includes critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinking
  • seek out multiple perspectives from a range of stakeholders to build bridges and collaborate effectively 

Developing a solutionary instinct takes time, effort, and a lot of practice, but the benefits of cultivating this instinct are enormous. Not only do we increase the likelihood of reducing conflicts and actually solving the problems we care about, we also improve our own lives as we build meaningful relationships, form supportive communities, and witness the positive impacts of our efforts. 

Originally posted on Psychology Today on April 29, 2024