What if we stopped thinking about polarisation as a political issue and thought about it as one of psychology and public health?
I started wondering about this while working as a campaign director at Avaaz.org, the 47-million-member global citizens’ movement. Part of my job was to run Avaaz’s Brexit campaign, where my brief was simple: to fight for Britain to remain in the EU.
As it turned out, though, a year working on Brexit convinced me that the biggest risk of Brexit wasn’t leaving the EU with no deal, catastrophic though that would be. Instead, I came to think that the real nightmare was the prospect that any outcome would leave Remainers and Leavers alike feeling betrayed and stabbed in the back.
Brexit seemed less like a conventional political issue than a bleeding, septic wound in Britain’s body politic: one that would require a far deeper kind of resolution than a second referendum or any particular configuration of single market or customs union membership.
My unease deepened when I left Avaaz to take a six-month sabbatical in Jerusalem – and saw, up close, an even more extreme form of polarisation.
I hadn’t visited Jerusalem since 2004, and it was horrifying to discover how much things had changed for the worse. Not just in how much Israeli politics had shifted to the right, but above all how Israelis and Palestinians had boxed themselves into completely exclusive narratives.
As veteran peacemaker Padraig O’Malley observes, each side now blames the other for everything, and is wholly unable to see how it has also helped create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.
But I also found something hopeful: the work of a growing community of ground-breaking psychologists like Gina Ross, who are increasingly starting to look at political polarisation in Israel and Palestine as a mental-health issue resulting from collective trauma.
The real nightmare of Brexit was the prospect that any outcome would leave Remainers and Leavers alike feeling betrayed and stabbed in the back.
The term they use is Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS). It’s what you call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when there’s nothing ‘post’ about it, and the stress is instead an ongoing, daily reality.
Israelis live in constant low-level fear of terrorism, from stabbings to bombings, rocket attacks, or even invasion. Palestinians, meanwhile, live in constant low-level fear of their house being seized or demolished, or arbitrary arrest, or because of living under more or less total surveillance.
On both sides, there are constant signals and cues that convey the message: you are not safe. Mothers take their kids to school with M4 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Watchtowers, walls and wires are everywhere. Police vehicles have their blue lights on literally all the time.
So it’s hardly a surprise that CTS in Israel and Palestine is widespread. As with PTSD, classic symptoms include anxiety, irritability, hyper-arousal, and – especially – ‘othering’: blaming everything on scapegoats.
And when enough individuals display these symptoms, their effects naturally enough start to seep into politics too.
The more I saw this dynamic play out in Jerusalem, the more it reminded me of Brexit Britain, as well as America under Trump, and the rise of the far right in Europe. Not to the same degree, sure – but on the spectrum.
Which made me wonder: does psychological research about trauma and polarisation in conflict situations actually have something valuable to offer the UK, US, and Europe?
At one level, it might seem a stretch. In the strictest sense, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines trauma as deriving from a specific episode of physical threat that an individual has been involved in at first hand, whether as victim, witness, or close family member. Brexit or Trump voters may be angry, but most of them will fail to satisfy this definition.
But over recent years, our understanding of trauma has become more sophisticated, with trauma increasingly recognised as covering a spectrum of responses to a variety of experiences, from specific episodes to repeated or ongoing events.
Does psychological research about trauma and polarisation in conflict situations actually have something valuable to offer the UK, US, and Europe?
So-called Complex PTSD, for example, can be diagnosed in cases of children who have suffered neglect rather than physical harm, or in instances of prolonged stress where individuals have little or no chance of escape, as with victims of slavery, human trafficking, or kidnapping.
We now also understand that trauma can be passed on from one generation to another. Psychologists have long known, for example, that children and even grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are much more likely to be referred to child psychiatry clinics than members of the general population.
As diverse as these forms of trauma are, what’s common in every case is an unresolved perception of threat that leads to constant hyper-vigilance and the kind of symptoms already mentioned.
And the same theme of threat perception is also at the heart of another contemporary mental health crisis: the current epidemic of anxiety, which now far outstrips depression as a mental health concern in Google searches, and which is defined as ‘overestimation of danger and underestimation of ability to cope’.
Discussion of anxiety often centres on young people and the personal pressures they face, whether from expectations of achievement, family breakdown, or relentless comparison with others via smartphones and social media.
But anxiety and threat perception can be collective as well as individual, and about perceived cultural as well as physical or emotional threats – which is where the issue becomes relevant to politics, not just in Israel and Palestine, but also in the UK, US and Europe.
This point is borne out by analysis of why people voted for Trump or Brexit, where study after study has found that although economic considerations mattered, they were significantly less important than issues of identity, belonging, status, and – crucially – threat perception.
Discussion of anxiety often centres on young people and the personal pressures they face, but anxiety and threat perception can be collective as well as individual.
In the US, University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz has found that status threat, not economic hardship, was the key to understanding the 2016 vote, and that a consistently accurate predictor of Trump support was agreement with the statement that ‘the American way of life is threatened’.
In the UK, too, the Brexit result can be understood as resulting from a sense of threat. The writer David Goodhart emphasises the fact that more than half of British people agree with the statement that ‘Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country and this makes me feel uncomfortable’.
And, of course, the same feeling of threat perception plays out on the other side of the political divide as well. Plenty of cosmopolitan liberals woke up the morning after the Brexit referendum or the 2016 US election feeling as though they, too, were living in a foreign country.
So when liberals dismiss people who disagree with them as ‘deplorables’, idiots, racists, or Nazis, this can also be seen as yet another instance of ‘othering’ borne of threat perception – which then amplifies the problem of polarisation still more, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
What would it look like, then, to take a more psychologically sound approach to political polarisation, in which polarisation is seen and treated as a symptom of exactly the kind of unresolved threat perception that lies at the heart of trauma and chronic anxiety?
To start with, we simply need to understand that polarisation has a crucial psychological dimension. Too often, polarisation is treated as a purely political question, that can be settled by policies or elections. In reality, much more is going on here, and at a much deeper level. Politics alone will always struggle to resolve the problem.
We also need to recognise that the problem will probably get worse before it gets better.
Too often, polarisation is treated as a purely political question, that can be settled by policies or elections. In reality, much more is going on here, and at a much deeper level.
In enabling individuals with extreme views to find and encourage each other, social media provides the perfect medium for turning individual into collective threat perception, thereby amplifying political polarisation. A recent study in Germany, for instance, found that towns in which Facebook use was higher than average reliably experienced more attacks on refugees.
More broadly, there’s the psychological impact of the news itself in a time of turbulence and crisis.
It’s common to read headlines about a human-caused mass extinction event, or suggesting we may only have 60 harvests left; about the risk that large swathes of humanity might simply become economically irrelevant thanks to AI; or simply that unpalatable facts are ‘fake’. As such stories become more common and more shrill amid an incessant competition for public attention, so the perception of threat that they create will deepen.
Most fundamentally, reimagining polarisation as a public mental health issue implies that the way forward is less about victory than about healing.
Think about what happens when individuals, couples, or families start psychological treatment. In all cases, the starting point is that everyone’s sense of wounding and hurt is legitimate: something to be heard and acknowledged rather than contradicted and dismissed.
Rather than creating winners and losers in a zero-sum game, psychological treatment aims for a shared understanding of what the problem is, and a plan for both treating the immediate symptoms and building resilience to the underlying causes.
What might such a treatment plan look like for the vast relationship crisis that is political polarisation?
Start with the obvious point that, in democracies, politics is about ordinary people and how they perceive and react to what’s going on around them. This places a huge premium on individuals who are able to manage their emotional states and take care of themselves mentally – whether through CBT, mindfulness, philosophy, knowing how to ‘untrigger’ when fight/flight responses light up, or just making time to unplug.
Reimagining polarisation as a public mental health issue implies that the way forward is less about victory than about healing.
We are just at the very beginning of recognising the need for support systems to enable them to do so, much less actually building those systems up. As Gina Ross has set out, certain groups of practitioners – such as health workers, educators, clergy, and media professionals – are especially influential, and their training hence becomes a key determinant of our collective resilience.
Obviously, social media plays an especially crucial role in what Ross calls our ‘collective nervous system’. Part of the challenge here is about individual responsibility, in that each of us has choices about whether to amplify or dampen down threat perception and polarisation through our posts, tweets, and blogs.
But as Jaron Lanier has argued, we also need to change how social media itself works if we want to make it less vulnerable to being weaponised psychologically, as it has been in recent years by actors like Russian trolls or Cambridge Analytica. And, in the short term, that may mean voting with our feet to bring pressure on companies like Facebook to change.
More broadly, we need to recognise that stories will be a big part of how we move forward. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage triumphed in 2016 because of their adeptness at telling stories, not the quality of their evidence base, as I argued in my book The Myth Gap.
Instead of just bemoaning their playing fast and loose with facts, we need to propagate the right kinds of story: narratives about a larger us, rather than a them-and-us, emphasising what we have in common rather than what divides us.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, we need to upgrade our collective capacity to listen. ‘Othering’ flourishes precisely when we don’t know the ‘other’ on to which we project all of society’s ills. This is exactly what’s happened in Israel and Palestine, where since the Second Intifada, a generation of Israelis and Palestinians have grown up not only traumatised by threat perception, but without knowing anyone on the other side.
This means we urgently need to invest in creating bandwidth for encountering people outside our small, and increasingly, shrill filter bubbles of the like-minded – and for steering into hard conversations in which all of us are heard, rather than shying away from them.
None of us should pretend it will be easy; there is much damage to repair. But if we want to rebuild a sense of common purpose, common identity, and common ground – a prerequisite for solving any of the defining challenges of our time – then this is an unavoidable part of the journey.
Alex Evans is a senior fellow at New York University and the author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough, published by Penguin.