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Why the gun control debate gets more intractable every time there's a mass shooting

The psychology of why terrorist attacks divide us further instead of bringing us together.

A makeshift memorial rests on Orange Avenue Monday, June 13, 2016, for the victims of the mass shooting scene at the Pulse night club in Orlando.
Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Terrorist attacks can bring out the worst in our already divisive political system.

Aside from the outpouring of grief, one of the clearest consequences of the horrible attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando was that it feels — more than ever — like American politics is divided on how to end these threats.

Conservatives, in the wake of a terrorist attack, call for increased vigilance of Muslims. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, wasted no time yesterday in renewing his call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. Michelle Malkin, a popular conservative commentator, wrote "Orlando Slaughter: This is What Immigration Diversity Gets You."

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio put it a bit more mildly: "Confronting the threat of violent homegrown ‎radicalization is one of the greatest counter terrorism challenges our law enforcement and intelligence community faces," he said in a statement.

Liberals, on the other hand, have jumped on the issue of gun control, calling for bans on assault weapons. But as history shows, these impassioned calls after a mass shooting never yield meaningful changes.

Debates are essential, and the problem isn’t that these attacks provoke them. It’s just depressing that every time an attack like this happens, these debates seem to become more intractable. The attacks not only kill, they also bring sore political divisions into sharp relief.

Research in psychology backs this up: In the wake of terror, people become surer of their core beliefs. It’s likely a survival mechanism to make us feel grounded when the world's been turned upside down.

The uncertainty and fear following a terrorist attack is a recipe for political retrenchment

"A violent [attack] like the one in Orlando introduces a state of existential uncertainty," Arie Kruglanski, a psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies closed-mindedness, writes me in an email. "In turn, this promotes support for scapegoating and adoption of black-white, polarized beliefs of 'us versus them’ and support for violent extremism against whoever appears to be the culprit."

Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford University, has observed similar political trends. "The threat of terrorism — like many sources of threat, can lead to more rigid thinking — less attention to ambiguity," he writes me in an email.

This can be a good thing in a chaotic situation, as it makes more economical use of our mental resources, narrowing our focus. And there is plenty of rich public conversation today around gun control and a more inclusive America.

It’s also true that, at times, terrorism and other horrific events have brought the country together, Willer notes. Think of the days after 9/11 when George W. Bush’s approval ratings were near 90 percent.

But lately, these moments haven’t become opportunities to build bridges with political opponents. Instead, attacks have become weapons to highlight divisiveness. Research suggests that compromise or understanding grows dramatically harder — especially in the days after the attack.

Ingrid Haas, a political psychologist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, studies the intersection of two emotions that typically flare in the wake of a terrorist attack: uncertainty and fear.

These are the two psychological weapons terrorists most effectively yield: making us feel threatened going about our daily lives in the places where we feel safe, and the feeling of not knowing where an attack might occur.

Haas predicts that when we feel both uncertain and threatened, we become more intolerant of political opponents (this is true of both liberals and conservatives). She found this in a series of experiments published in a 2014 paper in Political Psychology. "The fact that the exact nature of the threat is ... unclear means that people have a difficult time coping with it," she told me in one of our conversations. With that difficulty coping, she finds, people become less accepting of new ideas.

She recently followed up on this research in a paper published in May in Basic and Applied Social Psychology. It found that the combination of uncertainty and threat makes people — and especially conservatives — less willing to compromise. "This may be reason to believe that political conservatives are especially likely to respond to the (uncertain) threat of terrorism by decreasing their willingness to compromise about political issues," she wrote me in March. (Simpler: Don’t expect Trump to back down from his Muslim ban.)

From a biological standpoint, too, it makes sense that terrorist attacks can polarize the country. Some of us are just hardwired to respond more strongly to negative stimuli.

A lot of this work on the biological underpinnings of politics comes from the lab of John Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith at the University of Nebraska. I wrote about their work in a 2014 story for National Journal:

In his experiments, Hibbing often attaches electrodes to liberal and conservative participants' skin and then shows them disturbing images, such as a man eating a handful of worms. In these tests, conservatives sweat more (i.e., have a stronger gut reaction) in response to the disgusting stimulus. And when Hibbing hooks participants up to eye-tracking machines, he finds conservatives monitor more closely the things that make them squirm. So they are more readily provoked and more vigilant

Liberal commentators sometimes use Hibbing and Smith’s research to belittle conservatives and say they are too reactionary and less measured. Another way to look at it is that evolution has perhaps favored human communities wherein liberal minds and conservative minds are in constant tension. In our history — stretching tens of thousands of years — it’s likely each strategy has proven its merits in aiding our survival.

The human brain is built for political conflict. Can we do anything to erase the battle lines?

Science can help us explain why political America may become more divided after an attack.

It can also help us understand that those with whom we disagree are like that for a reason. And that, hopefully, is the first step to greater empathy. Because increasing empathy is the only good answer I can think of to combat the infighting that follows a terrorist attack.

And perhaps being immersed in politics and the 24-hour news cycle sharpens political contrasts. Perhaps our sense of division is exaggerated by the nonstop coverage of Trump and his polarizing ideas. (And it’s true people have been coming together in the wake of this tragedy, in beautiful, meaningful ways.)

If there’s any lesson from psychology that can help bridge our differences, it's this.

Jay Van Bavel is a New York University psychologist who has conducted dozens of experiments pitting lab participants against one another. It’s too easy. Many of his experiments start by arbitrarily assigning participants to a "red" team or a "blue" team. And right after, these off-the-cuff teams start to be distrustful of one another.

In 2013, he told me of a trick that sounded so simple and hopeful. Sometimes he’ll switch a red-team participant to the blue team and vice versa. "We say, 'Listen, there's been a mistake, you're actually on the other team,' " he told me then. "And the moment we do, we completely reverse their empathy. Suddenly they care about everybody who is in their new in-group."

If we can see opponents as ourselves, in other words, we can connect with them.