Politics, Personality, and Therapy

It’s November 1 and soon Election 2020 will be over. The American Psychological Association released a poll done in October that reported 68% of adults surveyed found the election to “be a significant source of stress”. I just read a new term today being used by some psychologists, election stress disorder. Yes, politics and polarization (not to mention the pandemic) have created a surge in the need for mental health services. This has been a very tough, zero sum game election season. 

Understanding why politics is so polarizing and stressful has its roots in personality and, to some extent, in biology. I am especially interested in how personality and particularly, ambiguity tolerance or uncertainty, creates this divide, or tension, in politics. 

Dannagal Young is a communications professor who has studied late night shows and political jokes to try to understand their impact on attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge. In addition to answering the question, “Why is political satire so liberal?”, she was led to study the psychological profiles between cultural liberals and conservatives. These differences likely account for different political views. My question is “how might these personality findings help us to understand our approach to therapy and recovery?”.

Here is how Professor Young expresses the differences in the psychological profiles of more conservative and more liberal people. The main difference is comfort with uncertainty. The conservative is more “threat conscious” and, therefore, prefers order, predictability, and routine. The liberal is less threat oriented and more open to new ideas or experiences and more tolerant of ambiguity. In a further distillation, some of us are going to approach the world motivated by “protection, security, and predictability” while others are moved to experience the world by “openness, experimentation, and novelty”. 

Clearly, both of these world views are completely fine. You may find that you operate out of both sets of behaviors and that is probably healthy and normal, too. But if we are honest, we know that one likely defines us more than another. Knowing who we are and how we are can help us drive our professional pursuits. 

In medicine, it is said that professionals make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. There are many unknowns in clinical rehabilitation. If every single person is completely unique (and they are), then every single patient is completely unique and unknown to us. What if the unknown scares us and we want to retreat to safety and routine? What if the unknown intrigues us and drives us to examine options and completely (or partially) change the way we do things each new encounter? What if we needed to rely on both?

The old mat exercise routines that have remained the same for years in stroke rehabilitation may make us feel safe but likely will not lead to greater participation in the life the patient wants. Salience and novelty drive neural plasticity. Routine (low thinking) may seem efficient but experimentation and iteration (high thinking) may lead to more effective interventions and outcomes.

Neurorehabilitation Professionals know that we cannot be threatened by the diversity of the unknown. We can rely on our knowledge (security, predictability) which gives us the constant reassurance that we can play with form, function, and tools in new ways to open ourselves to the great unknown, the patient and their movement system. Yes, the threat of having to diagnose movement disorders is a daunting task. I’m banking on anatomy, kinesiology, and neuroscience for my security. After that, I’m open to what happens next.

Whether you are a conservative or liberal is unimportant. In this election, what matters is that you vote. In therapy, what matters is that you remain open to reinforce your base (knowledge) and let it lead you to new interventions and solutions. We all need conservative and liberal elements . . .  just like we all need each other.