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When we feel healthy and safe, we have access to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the rational part of the brain that lies right behind our forehead.
Interpersonal Neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel attributes some of the functions of the PFC to empathy, morality, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, and fear modulation.
However, when people feel fearful and uncertain, we often drop into the Limbic or “Emotional Brain” that lies immediately below the PFC. The limbic or emotional brain is more concerned with surviving than thriving. This primal shift from the rational brain to the emotional brain also occurs when people get angry. In fact, any intense emotion will skew our decision-making from our reason toward our emotion. I think we can all say we’ve done some crazy things when love or fear was at the helm. Crimes of passion occur when emotion Trumps reason. (Yes, I did that.)
When we perceive a threat, we move into the limbic or emotional brain. In fear and anger, the brain shunts the blood flow and energy from the PFC to the limbic brain; essentially, we go from a rational brain into a survival brain. This made sense 60,000 years ago in situations when a predator or a warring tribe suddenly threatened humans. Those people didn’t need their intellect and reason as much as their survival instincts, so nature redirected the brain’s energy and blood flow into surviving over thriving, and that made perfect sense when most of our threats were physical.
Thousands of years later, the vast majority of our challenges are not life-threatening and physical but mental. Primitive man feared predators; modern man fears creditors. Most of today’s threats would be better neutralized by our reason and awareness than focusing on our survival, but we still have a Stone Age brain in a digital world.
Most threats do not require an emotional brain survival reaction, but we still react to perceived threats the same way our distant ancestors did, by dropping the rational brain and moving into survival brain. If we get into an argument with our partner about who gets to drive the new car to dinner, losing rationality and dropping into a 60,000-year-old survival state is not going to help. If we evolved to maintain our PFC and fear modulation, most disagreements would be solved in a matter of seconds. “You drive there, and I’ll drive back.”
But we are likely to be emotional animals for the foreseeable future. When people get angry or afraid, they lose the rational prefrontal cortex (and the functions listed above) and begin forming beliefs and making decisions with the less versatile and more rigid emotional brain. In a way, when we become afraid or angry, we become more like children, as children react much more from emotion than they do reason.
One reason for this is that the PFC doesn’t fully develop until our mid-20s, but the emotional parts came as stock equipment from birth. Telling a nine-year-old that they are not allowed to gorge on a bucket of Halloween candy an hour before dinner is not likely to get, “Oh, that makes sense, thank you for looking after my nutritional needs” as a response. Any child will tell you they can eat 12 Snickers bars and still have plenty of room for meatloaf. And they believe it at the time because their emotional brain is in command.
Shifting to the emotional framework of a child may give us a clue as to why seemingly irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories like QAnon seem to make perfect sense to otherwise normal, adult-appearing humans.
According to Developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, children have an innate need for belonging and loyalty, and this usually develops around three years of age. When a society becomes fearful, the adults in that society can regress to a psyche more like young children seeking belonging and loyalty over almost anything else. In times of stress, belonging trumps reason.
In times of fear and uncertainty, many adults become more childlike and begin to actively seek belonging and loyalty as a way to feel safer. When emotionally volatile or compromised adults find an echo chamber on social media that reflects their conspiracy type views, especially if those views are off-center or unpopular, the emotional brain begins to rule the roost, searching for the perceived security of tribalism. Becoming part of a group becomes more of a priority than becoming a part of society as a whole.
This is when belonging and loyalty begin to take precedence over rational and objective facts—an echo chamber of emotional and irrational beliefs is formed and fed. There is a feeling of security in belonging, and that belonging is magnified if the beliefs are at odds with the majority. It feels more like an exclusive club, and that exclusivity feeds our innate need for belonging.
Suppose someone from outside the “club” shows the group’s beliefs or views are not factual. In that case, the members inside will pick the belonging and loyalty of their group identity (no matter how obscure their ideas may be) over accepting that alternative view. Flat Earth believers are a classic example. If they no longer believed in the dogma, they’d lose their sense of belonging and loyalty, which would be unbearable. They likely sought the obscure belief because they needed the security that goes along with belonging to an exclusive group as protection from fear and uncertainty in the first place. The more obscure and different the beliefs, the more “special” and connected they feel.
If the group’s radical belief is questioned, the believer must stay firm to the dogma or no longer belong, which is as excruciating as it is unthinkable. The more factual and compelling the opposing view, the angrier the believers get and the stronger the need to retreat into their familiar echo chamber of belonging and loyalty.
It’s like the T-shirt that says, “I’m in my own little world, but it’s okay; they know me here.”
When faced with a compelling argument that opposes their views of the group, instead of seeing the possibility they could be wrong, they dig in. Paradoxically, it’s been shown that the more convincing the facts of the opposing viewpoint, the more likely people double down on their original beliefs, rather than merely accepting the mere possibility of an obvious and catastrophic refutation of their point of view. If they, even for a second, entertained an opinion contrary to the group dogma, that action carries with it the necessary extrication from the group. Questioning the dogma would be abhorrent to group members; it would remove them from the security of the group at a time they felt most insecure and uncertain.
This is why, despite no evidence of voter fraud through greater than 60 court cases from a multitude of circuit courts, the pro-Trump people continued to believe (and even exaggerate) the claims of voter fraud. They would often come up with absolutely ridiculous theories that would allow them to maintain the voter fraud delusion. They could maintain the belonging and loyalty of their personal “Stop The Steal” echo chambers, staying firmly in their emotional-survival brains and clinging to others with the same belief that the election was indeed stolen from them. This emotionality and need to belong to a Stop The Steal group neurologically locked them out of the ability to see objective facts because their brains’ rational part was pushed offline by the primal and evolutionary reaction of prioritizing emotional, survival responses over rational, factual ones.
When people as a society are fearful, they will try to find others who believe what they believe as a form of security. No amount of facts or evidence will override their primal tribalism and need to seek security in the group. Plus, that group is especially appealing if it holds exclusive or dissident beliefs. Dissident beliefs make the group seem even more exclusive and tight-knit as they adopt the “us vs. them” mentality. And it’s the feeling of “us” they are so badly looking for in times of fear.
As fear and uncertainty in the society increased over Trump’s four years, division and tribalism also increased. This increasing us vs. them mentality led to the invention and solidification of oddball theories and beliefs of what would have appeared ludicrous even 10 years ago. A decade ago, we would have had quite disparate and isolated people with disparate and isolated views, with little chance to coalesce. In as little as the last four years, these disparate individuals have been able to use social media to form a (dis)functional whole.
As fear and uncertainty grew, so did the loss of our collective prefrontal cortices as the population as a whole regressed into tribalism and the childlike need for belonging and loyalty. With the help of social media, disparate, disenfranchised individuals found each other, forming Trump mobs and splinter groups of all kinds. As each group grew, espousing their views on social media, these groups found echo chambers that confirmed the reality of each other’s positions and a powerful sense of purpose and belonging.
As a result, a resonating feedback loop of confirmation bias within the group just got stronger—opposing views were simply not given any credibility or ridiculed, further magnifying the sense of belonging to those that held “true” to the prevailing view of the particular group, regardless of the objective reality.
Unconsciously, the groups fail to see they are in an echo chamber as all of their members regurgitate the same view. Thus, the confirmation bias goes into high gear, and obscure, subjective views are repeated and reflected back so often that it doesn’t take long for them to be perceived as objective reality—especially as the intense emotion impairs the rational PFC. Trump repeated voter fraud claims many months before the election and did so relentlessly; those who were already low on rationality swallowed it up. Some, like Ashli Babbitt, even died for it.
Such is the case with QAnon post-inauguration day. Many of their followers were stunned that Trump was not reinstated, and Biden and his ring of human traffickers and Hollywood pedophiles were not rounded up and arrested that day. They were genuinely in stunned disbelief as they had told each other day after day, week after week, month after month, that a reckoning was coming that glorious day. Many have left QAnon in bitter disappointment, but others have adopted the view that judgment day is still coming and Trump will indeed be reinstated, and new world order will emerge as the “scum” are imprisoned or killed.
Over the last four years, the fear and uncertainty led to the collective loss of the rational prefrontal cortex and a default down into the emotional survival brain. This increase in emotionality pushed people to seek tribal connection regardless of the accuracy of the dogma, and that dogma spread within these ever-expanding groups with no rational brain left to critically appraise it. The emotional brain was in charge, and its goal is belonging and loyalty over rationality and objective reality.
This is how, from a neuroscience and developmental psychology perspective, Trumpism and splinter groups got such a hold on the United States of America. Hopefully, as the relentless daily assaults of uncertainty and venom that were Trump’s tweets and attacks on democracy fade, our collective nervous systems can get a break. We can move back from surviving to thriving and regain the use of our rational brains.
I don’t think people are aware of how much Trump kept Americans in a chronic state of hypervigilance and locked their nervous systems in a state of emotional survival. They were unable to access the reasoning PFC that would have allowed them to see Trump and splinter groups with a rational mind.