The Psychology of Emotional Escalation

Now, more than ever, people are fighting over politics. But fighting within families and among friends is not new. Susan Heitler, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today online: “The impulse to convince others of the rightness of your view and the wrongness of theirs gets all the stronger for everyone when the issue feels like one of importance.  The outcome of presidential elections in [particular] is likely to have strong impacts on people’s lives, i.e., on their financial status, on how much government programs will either help or hinder them, on whether our citizens will be safe from physical danger with regard to guns, terrorism, international enemies, etc.

“Some people have more, and some less, ability to allow others to be different.  This ability takes patience.  It takes willingness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt; that is, to assume that there is something valid in their viewpoint as well as in yours.  This ability also rests on ability to keep your emotions in the calm zone.”

In other words, it’s always important to listen. Dr. Heitler points out that some are more tolerant of differences than others. That’s true. But this tolerance arises from a deeper conviction and the serenity of knowing that you cannot forcibly change others’ minds.  If you enter into a discussion on the premise, “I must change his mind!” then it logically follows you’ll be much more intolerant and hostile than if you entered the discussion on a rational assumption. Example: “I probably won’t change his mind. But at least I got my point out there.”

Emotions arise because of what’s important to us. If things escalate, it’s easy to feed into the problem by resorting to personal attacks. But that’s a dead-end and proof that the discussion has already gone wrong. Better to abort than continue. The moment someone attacks me personally for my views, discussion is over. It’s worse than pointless to continue, because it’s no longer an intellectual discussion you’re having.

The best antidote to personal attacks is facts and issues. “I can see helping the poor is an important subject for you. I’m certainly not against that. But have you considered the benefits, efficiency and compassion of private charity rather than government help?” As a trained social worker and psychotherapist, I have several decades of experience talking to people who are on government assistance of one kind or another. I know how demoralizing, bureaucratic, and sometimes downright mean and nasty government bureaucracy can be. So why can’t all charity be private? And how is it charity when people are compelled to donate money (i.e., via taxes) to faceless, often inefficient and inhumane bureaucracies? These are questions I’d like to put out there. If it changes someone’s mind, wonderful. But I’ve done something with my time if I at least put it out there.

To some people, this will seem too nice. “I’d rather attack,” they say. Criticism has its place, but at some point you have to emphasize what you’re FOR, not just what you’re against. People sometimes accuse critics of “hate”, as if hate were bad in and of itself. My reply is, “I hate such-and-such because of what I love.” For example, “I love liberty and freedom. Therefore, I hate the idea of that candidate hampering my liberty and freedom.” You might have to get into a discussion of what liberty and freedom actually are. But at least then, you’re discussing real issues.

In the end, what’s really important is to (1) get your point across on the issues, and (2) to always remember what’s most important to you, and what’s important to the other person. If you’re unwilling or unable to do these things, then you’re just fighting for the sake of fighting. If that’s your way of releasing stress, maybe that’s OK. But don’t call it a discussion or a debate.

Political division is a growing issue in our society, our community and among families and friends. But the psychology of disagreement is not new.


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