Something that intrigues and perplexes me, or, to save on words, something that perpligues me, is the fact that different people can have astoundingly different perceptions of the same phenomenon. Presidents are a prime example. To some, President Obama is a reasonable, competent, politically mainstream president who follows through on his promises and is an effective leader for the country. To others, he is the destroyer of our society, our Constitution, and our future. This is especially interesting because the same thing was true for President Bush. How can people who grow up in the same country have such opposite views of reality?
Part of the answer is physical; the brains of conservatives and liberals tend to be different. Liberals adults generally have larger anterior cingulate cortices, which correspond to tasks involving rational thought, problem-solving, and empathy. Behind the anterior coagulate cortex lies the amygdala, which processes emotional reactions; the amygdala is the “fight or flight” decider, and tends to be enlarged in the brains of conservatives. Whether these are innate differences, differences developed in response to ways of thinking, or a combination of nature & nurture isn’t yet clear.
Outside of these structural brain and corresponding personality differences, there seems to be something nearly universal in our tendency to place politicians into “good” and “evil” boxes that are very far apart on the spectrum of behavior. The higher up the politicians, the more loved or demonized they become. Thus, very few people appear to have mixed feelings about presidents – they are either saviors or Satan-incarnates. We tend to do this with bosses, too, which makes me think that it’s power that causes us to judge. This might not be such a bad thing – it could be an evolutionary trait developed to retain good clan leaders and rid ourselves of bad ones.
On the opposite side of our judgmental selves is the reaction we have to babies and small children. We love them all. They are not to be blamed for their shortcomings. The sight of a baby’s face triggers activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with reward behavior. Loving and wanting to protect babies would be of obvious survival advantage. Some of the cues of the human baby – big eyes, proportionally large head, and dependency on others, for example, spill over into other species and probably account for our adoption of cute pets. I imagine that this basic instinct to care for babies accounts for other stories of cross-species parenting that we love to hear about. But for some reason, when babies grow up, we can stop loving them and start hating to the point of wanting to kill them.
I think that our challenge in life, if we want to successfully navigate from early primate survival to technologically complex societies, is to use our instinctual love of all babies to temper our prejudice toward adults. One useful exercise that we can practice is to look at our perceived enemies – the bosses or politicians that we hate – and picture them as the fragile and beautiful babies that they were not so long ago.
Choose a Daisy: