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A Surprising Way to Fight Political Hatred and Violence

Optical illusions could help change unchangeable animosities.

Key points

  • Political divides are widening, with growing animosity on both sides. This is likely contributing to a growing risk of violence.
  • Many political differences stem from opposing belief in different core "facts," making opponents view each other as foolish or even evil.
  • Optical illusions show that the same brains that make political judgements of facts unconsciously distort reality in other ways.
  • Using illusions to show how brains don't report reality, but create it, might help some let go of anger towards those who perceive "wrong facts."

Each election cycle has seen increasingly harsh rhetoric. More ominous is a recent uptick in political violence, such as the storming of the Capitol on January 6 and attacks on election officials, politicians, and judges. As we approach the 2022 midterms, people on both sides of the political divide are throwing around insults like “fascist” or calling for their opposition to be put in jail (or in some cases, executed for treason).

If we are to survive as a nation, we need to stop political hatred and violence from spiraling completely out of control. But how? One answer may lie in a surprising branch of behavioral science, visual perception; specifically the study of optical illusions.

The Link Between Optical Illusions and Politics

Neuroscientists, psycho-physicists, and cognitive psychologists study optical illusions because these misperceptions provide deep insights into how our brains convert raw sensory information into an understanding of the world.

To the extent that political animosity arises from distorted perceptions of the world—exaggerating certain realities while underappreciating other realities—perhaps a careful look at what we’ve learned about how our brains routinely distort reality might cause at least some people to reconsider the bedrock “facts” that fuel the anger they feel towards those on the other side of the political divide. Beliefs about what constitutes rock solid “truth” are often at the core of political animosities because these beliefs lead to attributions about the motive and character of those who refuse to acknowledge obvious “facts.” (1)

For instance, turning for a moment to international politics, many in the West look at the “fact” that Russia faced no threat to its safety from NATO and Ukraine as evidence that the Kremlin was greedily expansionistic or even evil when it invaded Ukraine. Conversely, many Russians, remembering that the West, in the form of Napoleon and Hitler, did invade Russia, and more recently—despite promising not to 20 years ago—expanded right up to Russia’s borders, attribute expansionistic, evil motives to the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine. (2)

Anger and violence are more understandable when “the facts” prove that someone else is evil. That’s why convincing people that some “facts” they firmly believe may not be as solid as they think could start to unravel the negative character attributions that lead to hate and violence.

Source: Copywright Tamuren CC4 Wikimedia
Hall illusion where context and experience mislead us into seeing startight lines as curved
Source: Copywright Tamuren CC4 Wikimedia

Let’s suppose you are among those who believe the Kremlin had no legitimate reason to fear NATO or a future NATO alliance with one of its former states, Ukraine. The brain that believes that “fact”—your brain—is the same brain that perceives the lines in the above checkerboard as curved, when the absolute truth is all the lines are straight.

If your brain unconsciously and automatically distorts some truths, why not others?

Here’s another illusion that uncovers an important truth about why we often misperceive the world, starting us down the path to dangerous character-flaw attributions.

Source: Copyright Bundusan CC3 Wikimedia
Light, shadow and random rock features give illusion of face
Source: Copyright Bundusan CC3 Wikimedia

The ominous face carved into this cliff could naturally give rise—in some observers—to an uneasy feeling that the rock harbored a demon and embodied a supernatural evil spirit. But there is no face carved into the rock: the visage is a trick of light and shadow that causes an optical illusion termed pareidolia, where our brains, all on their own, unconsciously and automatically assemble perceived shapes and contours into faces.

Cognitive and sensory neuroscientists who study pareidolia believe that as a social species, our brains have evolved special visual circuits to perceive human faces, and facial expressions, and that these circuits do not passively convey the “facts” about images on our retinas, but actively construct those images into the conscious perception of faces—even when no faces are present (3).

In other words, our brains actively construct the reality that we “see” instead of accurately reporting “true facts.” Similarly, our brains construct political “facts,” along with dangerous character attributions about people who are blind to those “facts,” often fueling anger, hatred, and ultimately violence.

So, instead of continuing to think there is something flawed about Democrats who can’t see the obvious “fact” that Biden is losing it, or alternatively, Republicans who can’t see the clear “truth” that Trump is evil, pause for a moment and take another look at the above illusions.

People who don’t see things your way aren’t necessarily flawed. They are, like all of us who see illusions, simply human.





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