Political anger is often equated with intelligence and virtue, but it is more like an automatic reflex when viewed at a brain level. Each surge of political anger builds a pathway in the brain that makes it easier for new information to turn on the anger. The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. When the path to your political anger is activated, you might justify it by invoking the greater good. But no good is served by such automatic responses, neither for an individual or a society. It’s better to understand the root of such responses instead.
Emotion connect neurons
Anger releases the energy we need to push away a potential threat. It’s one of the responses that helped our ancestors survive. Each time your brain releases its anger chemistry, connections build among all the neurons active at that moment. This is how your brain learns from experience. When a future situation resembles a past threat, electricity zips down the path to your anger and prepares you for survival action. Social animals experience social threats as survival threats, which is why mundane conundrums can be triggering. Conscious perception of threat is not necessary because electricity flows easily where it has flowed before.
Common enemies build social bonds
Mammals form social groups to protect themselves from common enemies. They stick with a group despite significant internal conflict because predators quickly annihilate isolated individuals. We have inherited a brain that seeks comfort in social bonds. Common enemies help us sustain those bonds despite inevitable frictions. Your mammal brain feels good about people who share your dislike of certain candidates and causes. Political anger is a reliable way to enjoy the good feeling of safety in numbers.
Mirror neurons build pathways when you observe the political anger of others
Mirror neurons fire when you see another person get rewards or avoid pain. If you observe political anger that appears to get a reward or avoid harm, your brain is inclined to mirror it. If it happens repeatedly, the pathway builds. If it happens before age twenty, the pathway will myelinate, which makes it one of your core circuits. Without conscious intent, you can get wired for political anger if it’s often around you.
The mammal brain looks for safe ways to challenge its social hierarchy
Most mammal groups have a social hierarchy. It emerges organically as each brain looks for safe ways to promote survival. Challenging a stronger individual for food or mating opportunity is not a way to survival. The brain looks for challenges it can win. Venting anger at your boss or your lover has consequences, but venting at a politician on a screen is safe. We have inherited a brain that feels good when it’s in the one-up position, and venting at politicians is an accessible way to feel good.
Political anger is often blamed on today’s world, but history shows that people have always been angry with the power structures around them. That’s what mammals do. We humans drape this response in sophisticated language so its emotional core gets obscured. The eager quest for new political information obscures that way we flow it through old pathways.
We have to live with the brain we’ve got. It enjoys social alliances. It enjoys challenging authority. It enjoys finding threats and preventing them. Political anger is a reliable way to stimulate these good feelings. But it is not a reliable way to solve problems, because it locks people in to responses that fit their old pathways. The greater good is served each time a person inhibits their anger long enough to see the benefits of new solutions instead of just the threats.
The automatic political responses of others are easy to see, but the automaticity of one’s own response are easy to overlook. Electricity simply flows into your well-developed neural pathways, giving you the sense that you know what is going on. Inhibiting old responses feels unsafe, but it’s a valuable contribution to the greater good.
About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. InnerMammalInstitute.org She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.