Thursday, October 3, 2013

One Potential Solution To The Gridlock In Washington: Chill Out

I think just about everybody in the US is angry right now. Democrats are angry at Republicans. Republicans are angry at Democrats. Progressives are angry at Conservatives. Conservatives are angry at Progressives. People hate the 1%. People hate the 47%. Billionaires are horrible people. Poor people suck.

It does not matter what your opinion is--At this very moment, you can find someone who agrees with you who is saying something awful about someone who disagrees with you. If you don't believe me, turn on a 24-hours news channel. Or just check Twitter.

Anger can be useful sometimes. It can be a clue that we really care about something. It can spur us to action. It can be a warning sign that we are masking other emotions.

But, it can also cause intransigence. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers discovered something interesting. When they trained Israeli citizens to recognize, reassess, and regulate their negative emotions, they were much more willing to consider cooperating with Palestinians.

The researchers trained half the research participants in what they called "cognitive reappraisal," which is the emotion regulation process described above. The other half of the participants did not receive the training. The researchers then provided anger-inducing information about Palestinians to all of the Israeli participants.

Those Israelis who received the training were much more likely to want to work out their differences with the Palestinians, and those who did not receive the training were much more likely to want to respond to the anger-inducing information with aggression.

Interestingly, the effects of this one-time cognitive training lasted for at least five months. All of the research participants were reassessed at that time, and those who received the training were still much more likely to want to cooperate with Palestinians.

You have to hand it to the researchers--they really went for it. They could have examined the divide between Mounds and Almond Joy lovers, but instead they looked at one of the biggest conflicts in the world's most conflictual region. And they showed that chilling out helps.

Isn't there something in the Constitution about being
about to tar and feather politicians we don't like?
So, what does this mean for people in the United States? Maybe our real political problem is not that we have a certain president or that one side or the other is trying to ruin the economy. Maybe the real problem is that we all have been trained to be highly partisan and to see those who disagree with us as "the enemy." When the enemy does something we disagree with, we get very angry and we dig in our heels on issues that seem important to us.

The next time you notice this happening to you, stop for a moment and think about your anger. Think about how you are buying into a broken political system that needs to be changed. Take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself down. Recognize that the vast majority of Americans are not trying to sabotage anything. We disagree, but we all want the United States to succeed. Instead of stopping at the anger stage, think about why you are getting angry. Think about more constructive ways of dealing with that anger--educating someone who does not have the correct information, learning more about the issue yourself, looking for commonalities rather than focusing on differences, and so on.

If you do this, there is a good chance you will feel yourself wanting to cooperate with others. And others will want to cooperate with you.

If you need to win every argument, this will eventually
be you. At least you'll have a book to keep you company.
If you stop your emotional process with anger and then fire off a snarky tweet or an ill-worded Facebook post, you are not helping anyone. You won't change anyone's mind. You will feel miserable. And, you will be letting the emotionally immature people who currently run our political system play you for a fool. Stand up to them by refusing to get angry. If we can all just chill out a little bit and learn to cooperate, our elected officials will have no choice but to grow up and start cooperating, too.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

reference: Halperin, E., Porat, R., Tamir, M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). Can emotion regulation change political attitudes in intractible conflicts? From the laboratory to the field. Psychological Science, 24(1), 106-111.


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