Our culture has a particular fascination with personality theory.
Maybe we like it because it gives us a common language to understand one another in a variety of contexts—relationships, for example (what’s your love language?), or professional settings (how do you respond to expectations?).
More often, though, I think our obsession with personality tests is less about understanding other people and more about having a shorthand for our own specialness. We relish Enneagram memes; we introduce ourselves with our Myers-Briggs type (guilty). There’s a particular delight in being seen, in feeling understood (and in spending a lot of time thinking about ourselves).
As such, we feel a sense of solidarity with those who are similarly categorized.
“It’s the same pleasing ‘we stand apart, together,’ sensation one can get from researching genealogy or pledging a sorority,” writes Verily contributor Margaret Brady.
Or, perhaps, for voting for the same candidate for president.
Lately, it’s become apparent that one’s vote has become as much a demonstrator of identity as the MBTI. But far from the benign (if occasionally self-indulgent) fun of discovering whether you’re an ENFJ or an ISTP, your vote has become a high-stakes quiz indicating your very moral values—and instead of expressing your uniqueness, it squeezes you into one of two specific (and depending on whom you ask, detestable) molds. Not only does this way of thinking threaten our mental health, it divides our communities, too.
Resisting the impulse to stereotype
If we assign a whole slew of characteristics to a person based on the way they vote, we’re not likely to be correct.
To borrow a term from the world of survey-based research, presidential elections are essentially forced-question choices. While some voters may choose to vote third party or to abstain, the vast majority perceive their only option to be to endorse one of two candidates. In such a strict binary, there’s no room to express the degree of one’s support, to make caveats. One or the other, period.
This is obvious, yet much of the loudest political dialogue characterizes the opposition as a monstrous monolith. In reality, a person’s political leanings—even of those who tout all the party lines—are only a fraction of their character, their personality, their values, their likes and dislikes. How much less so can a person be described by their vote if they feel like they’re making concessions with it: if there are issues that affect them deeply that their candidate ignores, if there are vulnerable or marginalized groups for whom their candidate does not advocate, if there are stances their party takes with which they vehemently disagree?
Perhaps the real problem isn’t so much that we believe voters of the opposite candidate are wholehearted supporters—though we probably do forget that from time to time—as it is that we feel that the correct choice of candidate, even with a degree of reluctance, is overwhelmingly obvious. How could any reasonable person not vote for … ?
For one, our perception of the world varies dramatically from person to person—thanks in no small part to our social media feeds.
“You look over at the other side, and you start to think, ‘How can those people be so stupid? Look at all of this information that I’m constantly seeing. How are they not seeing that same information?’” says Justin Rosenstein, formerly of Google, Facebook, and Asana, in the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
“And the answer is, ‘They’re not seeing that same information.’”
The algorithms that govern our digital platforms—even the way Google autocompletes search terms as you type, explains Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and another interviewee in the documentary—depend on your interests, your online behavior, your locale, and countless other variables.
“Even two friends who are so close to each other, who have almost the exact same set of friends, they think, you know, ‘I’m going to news feeds on Facebook. I’ll see the exact same set of updates,’” says Lanier. “But it’s not like that at all. They see completely different worlds because they’re based on these computers calculating what’s perfect for each of them.”
Furthermore, highly emotional content, especially angry content, tends to have a much greater reach than calm, rational discussion. Certainly this has created a poor incentive structure for opportunistic social media users—be outrageous; go viral!—as well as contributed to the problem of misinformation.
But relationally speaking, it misrepresents the median voter on both sides. The people whose posts populate our feeds are hardly representative of society at large. A recent Pew study found that 92% of tweets from all U.S. adults in the last year were authored by just 10% of users. As of this summer, 64% of Americans say social media has a “mostly negative” effect on the country (citing the spread of misinformation and hate as the top two reasons why). I’d hazard a guess that the social media detractors aren’t the most active users on our feeds.
In other words, if we’ve formed a picture of the typical supporter of our non-preferred candidate based on our online activity—as I fear many of us have this year—it’s simplistic at best and repugnant at worst.
But even when friends or family members behave in a way that confirms our worst assumptions, they are still much more than their politics. And just as we don’t know how someone else perceives the world (or what they see on their news feed), we’ll never know the extent to which their personal history has shaped their beliefs.
“So many political and moral opinions are based on personal experiences, especially any type of trauma,” Carly Graham, a licensed therapist (and Verily contributor), told me. “We need to keep this in mind as we relate with others during this election season. Our experiences shape the lens through which we view issues and practical ways to fix things that are wrong in our society.”
At the risk of sounding idealistic: strong relationships are the building blocks of a healthy society. Even while there are many gravely important issues at stake in this election, as in every election, widening the chasm between political groups only undermines our collective desire for a better country.
Setting boundaries between our identities and our politics
Identity has a lot to do with where and how we belong in our world. Once again, social media has an outsize effect.
When we’re confronted by politics every time we scroll through our feeds—which, for many of us, is multiple times daily—it makes our world seem more politicized than it actually is, figuratively tinting our lenses red and blue. Obviously the political posts and articles we see are at their peak during an election, but even in ordinary times they’re present enough to remind us where we do and don’t fit among our family, friends, and acquaintances.
It isn’t exactly great for our mental health. On an interpersonal level, it’s hard to see post after angry post—often with the not-so-subtle implication that dissenters are morally depraved—and not take it personally. Engaging in online debates is similarly draining (and rarely ends well).
This can tempt us into a kind of political tribalism, feeling safest and most comfortable among those with whom we agree—even to the point of that “standing together, apart” pride Brady mentions regarding personality tests. When our political alignment serves our personal identities before our real-life communities, however, it turns into what political science professor and author Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyism.”
“[Political hobbyists] consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs,” he writes. “... What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”
Even where we feel a moral imperative to be vocal on certain issues, it’s healthier to do so while creating space between our goals and beliefs and our dignity and sense of self. We need not compromise activism, but the end in mind ought to be real dialogue and effectual change, rather than simply staking out our place in the political landscape.
But does setting boundaries between our identities and our politics constitute civil neglect? I would say no; your vote does not count less if it feels less like a fifth limb. (Maybe you can even channel that surplus energy into local political efforts, like getting active in your county’s school board.) Furthermore, maintaining distance between ourselves and our preferred politicians makes it easier to be intellectually honest about problems that plague our culture and policies that could bring about positive change.
Sometimes, setting boundaries may just look like tuning out of the news or spending less time on social media. And if you worry that you’ll be poorly informed should you spend less time reading political news: research suggests that consuming too much of it, especially from partisan outlets (as so many these days are, on both sides), clouds our judgment.
It also may require an intentional mindset shift in how we perceive ourselves and the people in our lives.
Dialectical thinking may be of help. Drawn from a therapeutic context, it involves the idea that two seemingly contradictory ideas can be true at once.
Practically speaking, it can mean replacing the word “but” with “and.” Doing so validates both thoughts, rather than putting them at odds or letting one invalidate the other. For example:
“I believe that my friend is making the best judgment she can, and I feel disappointed that she’s on the other side of this issue that affects me personally.”
Or: “I feel at peace with my vote, and I don’t want to talk to anyone about it.”
Next week, as I take some time offline, I’ll probably be thinking something like, “I care about the election, and I care about preserving my mental health.”
“The election will be brutal and bitter; there’s no way to avoid this,” writes Arthur Brooks. “But Americans have to decide whether we want our own lives to be brutal and bitter as well.”