S1E23 Polarization and Dialectics

Today the docs discuss one of Dr. Rubin's favorite things in psychology: dialectics! In this episode Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete break down the effects of polarization on our social relationships, describe how polarization is a common consequence of our brain's wiring, and how dialectics can help (don't worry, they'll define it). Tune in to learn how to manage polarization and hopefully become more dialectical.




Nikki: So Pete, I think that we probably couldn't find a person that would disagree with the statement that we're living in a very polarized time. Do you think that's really accurate?

Pete: Yeah. Well, we don't mean to laugh, but it is. One of the thoughts I immediately have with that is that we're one of the only developed countries with two party system, and I think our system, if we think about this systemically, our system fosters the polarization. But we're going to talk about polarization.

Nikki: Yeah, we're going to talk about polarization in this episode. And to be clear, and I've said this on the podcast before, this is not a political...

Pete: We are not politicians.

Nikki: Yes, we're not politicians, not a political podcast. This is a podcast about psychology, obviously, from both a Western behavioral science lens and an Eastern spirituality lens. And interestingly enough, both of these psychological frameworks have a lot to say about polarization that even if we were not living in a very polarized time, this is something that Pete and I talk about clinically, all the freakin time.

Pete: Well, because it's your favorite word, Nikki.

Nikki: It is my favorite word. So..

Pete: Dialectic,

Nikki: Dialectic, yes. So let me say a little bit about, let's define what polarization is. And then I can define dialectic.

Pete: Yeah, 7

Nikki: So maybe why don't you start? Why don't you define what polarization means? Again, using sort of a psychological framework? What does that mean?

Pete: So one of the things I think about when I think of polarization is David Burns 'Cognitive Distortions', so all or nothing.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: So it's this black and white perception of life. You and I've talked about it in terms of this absolute truth. So there is no one absolute truth, which is also, by the way, as I was reading some Zen Buddhist reading the other day and it talked a lot about this absolute truth, so I thought of you immediately, because there is no one absolute truth. And I think with polarization, it's like 'I'm right, you're wrong'. And so even if it's a heavy issue, like abortion, there is no right or wrong answer. I mean, obviously, people feel that way.

Nikki: Yes, they believe that,

Pete: I have a belief in that, wherever my belief is, but that's a very polarizing event, because it makes people feel as if maybe there's that kind of linking to righteousness,

Nikki: It is,

Pete: Kind of thinking like 'I'm right',

Nikki: Which we talked about in righteousness and rigidity,

Pete: That's Episode 10.

Nikki: Episode 10, yes. So yeah, thank you for that bit of psycho Ed there. And I think I want to add in here that as humans, our brains are wired towards polarization. So we're actually wired for this black and white thinking, because it's actually a processing issue, it's much easier to process things in binaries, than in shades of like 1000, it's much easier to think like 'it's either or', 'it's good or bad', 'it's best or worst'. So, they've done research, human brains are very skilled at chunking information. And so that's one way we chunk information, it's just in one or the other. So that's another component that it is a processing component of the brain. I was about to say it's like an error. But I don't even want to say that, it's just a part of the brain.

Pete: It's just neurologically how it works.

Nikki: Yes, exactly.

Pete: And I know you love my definition.

Nikki: Oh, I love them, yeah. Bring it on.

Pete: Division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.

Nikki: Thank you. Yeah.

Pete: I like the idea of sharply contrasting.

Nikki: I'd like that as well. Is that a Merriam Webster?

Pete: Yeah, sure. Let's call it that. I'm not 100% sure.

Nikki: From Google.

Pete: From Google. Okay, Dr. Google.

Nikki: Yeah, Dr. Google's got a lot to say, Okay, so polarization is really like these sharp contrasts in perception, beliefs. And, as Pete's explaining, when people, meaning all human, Pete and I as well,

Pete: All of us.

Nikki: All of us, are focused on our own opinion or belief about something, we not only attach very tightly to that, we view the opposite belief as incorrect or wrong.

Pete: Right.

Nikki: So, now it's time for dialectics.

Pete: Her favorite thing,

Nikki: My favorite thing.

Pete: Producers, bring in the music.

Nikki: My favorite thing, and I've said before, my best friends from college who are not psychologists just always tease me because they..

Pete: Well they just sense dialectics.

Nikki: Yeah, they love them.

Pete: Get ready listeners, here we go. Go ahead Dr. Rubin.

Nikki: So as I've talked before, dialectic is not a psychological term. It actually comes from philosophy. And it has been borrowed by third wave cognitive behavioral therapies initially by Dr. Marsha Linehan, who created dialectical behavior therapy, because dialectics help target polarizing beliefs, and DBT, dialectical behavior therapy, is really focused on helping those that are experiencing intense emotion, which by the way, causes polarizing beliefs.

Pete: Look at that behavioral cycle.

Nikki: Yes. Come back to a more accurate and balanced lens. So there's two definitions of the dialectic. The first is, 'there's no one universal truth in the world', meaning, another way of saying it is, no one universal belief or absolute truth. There's no one right way to be a person. There's no one right perspective, there are infinite perspectives and beliefs and ways of living on this planet as a human. The second definition, which is the one that I would say, we sort of utilize clinically, in a more active way is that, 'two opposite things exist at the same time'. This is actually very, very uncomfortable for the brain to hold. So I'm going to use Pete here, he's going to,

Pete: Please do.

Nikki: Yes, as an example that I really liked you. So I'm going to ask you, Pete, and I obviously know the answers to these already, but I'm going to say, do you value honesty?

Pete: I do.

Nikki: You do? Yes. Okay. So Pete values honesty, something that's important to him. Pete, have you or do you tell white lies?

Pete: I do.

Nikki: You do. All right. So, Pete values honesty, and he tells white lies. I'm going to say, when I think of that, and by the way, same for me, Nikki values honesty, and she tells white lies sometimes. It feels uncomfortable. Can you feel that there's like a little bit of, I kind of joke and say, it's like a brain herder, like its a little unpleasant.

Pete:  Sure,

Nikki: You know what I'm talking about?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Okay. And yet, that's the most accurate statement. Pete's brain and my brain, our brains don't want to sit with that, they're going to want to go, "but I value honesty". But that's the most important.

Pete: I want to be like Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar.’ I got to tell all truth all the time.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: Not

Nikki: Not. So these two diametrically opposed facts, both exist. And what we know is that when we're able to acknowledge and sit with a dialectic, so acknowledging these two opposite trues, not only is this actually more emotionally regulating for the brain, it's the most accurate, it's the clearest that there's space to see both sides. So I'm curious, what are your thoughts about that?

Pete: Well, it exists on many different levels. So I like that example, because I think that's very accessible. And it goes much deeper too, because,

Nikki: It does.

Pete: I had a student asked, "well, how can someone identify with one sexual identity and then engage in another sexual behavior?"

Nikki:  Yes. Very good example.

Pete:  Yeah. So I mean, that's heavy for people. And many people won't understand me even saying that, frankly. And we know that within sexuality, it's fluid. And so there are certain things that not have nothing really matches.

Nikki: Nothing really matches.

Pete: Yeah. And that's okay. Yeah.

Nikki: Well, and that's so hard for the brain. It's so hard for the brain, especially when we're emotionally tied to something. So it's like, our brains really like our own beliefs.

Pete: Well, say more about that. I like that, because the emotion is likely what makes a lot... that's really what drives the dialectic or like the righteousness of it, right?

Nikki: Well, drives the opposite of the dialectic. Drives the [inaudible 8:42]

Pete: Well, yeah.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. So, when we experience intense emotion, and we all do, and again, oftentimes, we experience intense emotion around things that are related to our values and what's important to us. Unfortunately, again, this is a brain science thing here, the more intense our emotions are, and if they become even dysregulated, meaning, they're really out of whack, I guess is the best way to say it. Our brains produce more evaluative statements, more judgments, more polarizing beliefs. And then those beliefs get, for lack of a better phrase here, stickier, the more attached to them, and it's the cycle then. The more attached we are to these polarizing beliefs, it activates more intense emotion around it. So if you, I don't know, we can use kind of an innocuous example. If, I don't know, in your town, they want to

Pete: Go to Starbucks,

Nikki: Yeah, great. They want to put a Starbucks, and there's never been a Starbucks for you guys of all local businesses. And some people in the town are like, "this is great", like, "it's going to be such a good deal and it's so quick", "and we love Starbucks coffee", and there are other people in the town that are like, "it's really ruining our businesses",

Pete: "It's commercial",

Nikki: " It's commercial". And look, I have no opinion about this, so it's interesting [inaudible10:09] I was talking about it. As I'm just saying each of those imaginary beliefs that we're coming up with, I can feel my body start to react, can you feel that?

Pete: Well, this was actually a real life example in a neighboring town where there was a town who, I guess they have some sort of law against commercial businesses, because it's all for small businesses, and just to keep it small and quaint and then there was a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. And the town was up in arms, and they were so split. And so it's both really funny. And it's charging,

Nikki: And it's charging.

Pete: So hey, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks, want to be a sponsor?

Nikki: Yeah. Again, wouldn't hate that.

Pete: But you're right. People will get under those camps. And I think what we see now, and this is again, we're trying not to be political, and we can't not be, that's a pink elephant as we're talking about. So I think it's the due diligence is for us to at least address this a little bit, because there's this polarization of politics. And right now, that's what's creating the issue. So I started off by saying that, because I think, if not all developed countries have more than two parties. I'm pretty sure all, I think we're the only developed country that has only a two party system.

Nikki: I'm embarrassed to say I have I have no idea actually. But

Pete: Well, I think like Germany has like seven or eight and Sweden has like this, so a lot of these developed countries have multiple parties. So, right now,

Nikki: It allows for more viewpoints that allows for more evolution,

Pete: Exactly.

Nikki: Which, I think, is interesting, because I think perhaps some people would listen and say, "well, that's going to create more tension or more difficulty". And the kernel of truth is, yes, that's right. And it's more accurate, there's more space to see the many different shades that it doesn't create an environment that's as adept at cultivating polarization as the system in our country. I'm not sure if you've watched this yet, Pete, but just the other night, I watched 'The Social Dilemma', just came out on Netflix, do you know about this?

Pete: Yeah, I saw it.

Nikki: Did you watch it? Okay.

Pete: I had all my clients watching it right now.

Nikki: Okay, great. So, when I watched it, I was, and I highly recommend anyone listening to...

Pete: Well except the production of it, it's not great. I didn't like that storyline that they have with the family. Do you feel me with that?

Nikki: I feel you with it. Yes. But with the science about the psychological science,

Pete: Couldn't they have just presented that?

Nikki: I mean, they could have. Yes, they could have,

Pete: Thank you.

Nikki: Though, I was so obviously, horrified watching it, and also felt very validated. Because I was like, "This is what psychologists have been saying, This is what we've been talking about".

Pete: And this is why you don't do it.

Nikki: And this is why I don't do social media. Correct.

Pete: So just for the listeners,

Nikki: Yeah, please.

Pete: I'll give you the end a little bit. But the idea is that all of these apps and social media are meant to make us addicted, essentially. That's how you break it down the smallest.

Nikki: And polarize your beliefs.

Pete: And polarize your, beliefs because your funneled what you believe. And we've talked about that on here before as well, like if I click Nikki Rubin, psychologist, LA, I'm then going to get ads looking for other psychologists in that area.

Nikki: Correct.

Pete: And so, in the east, a lot of the mantras or the [inaudible13:17] or anything that we've repeat, they often focus on this. So it'll be like life and death, movement and stillness,

Nikki: Yes,

Pete: Finite and infinite, because the teaching is really that it's both finite and infinite, and it's also

Nikki: At the same time,

Pete: And it's neither finite nor infinite. So that's how complicated the East gets because it's really that, like nothing actually exists outside of our mind.

Nikki: Right. And I don't think an Eastern saying, it's like nothing exists that's not in contradiction. That everything has an opposition and that we're trying to make space for all of it,

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: I'm thinking a lot about obviously, kind of like what shows up in psychology dialectics that I'll show patients, but I spent a lot of time talking about with students is, I'll say, "really bad therapy is all science or all art". Somebody that's just following a manual and being a robot that's, not going to be workable, someone that's just only focusing on being creative and only kind of going with the flow, no one's going to get better. Effective therapy is, and I would say, medicine and even hair colors, science and art, there's a both. Another dialectic that shows up throughout our lives is acceptance and change. I would say, humans, we tend to be really change oriented. We got to make it better.

Pete: Well I like that you started by saying this, that we also don't like change. So whether...

Nikki: No, we don't,

Pete: Whether good or bad.

Nikki: Changes is uncomfortable, change is difficult. And yet we always try to push that forward. We have a very hard time accepting where we're at.

Pete: Right and I know I just blended two episodes, but the idea with the polarization is it's uncomfortable for our brain to hear the other side.

Nikki: It is, and we that's where people shut down. So if we kind of weave back in what's happening in our country, both politically and in any sort of hot button issue, people don't want to listen to an opposing viewpoint, because it's unpleasant. This is why people have their cable news. station of choice, people prefer to watch NBC or FOX news.

Pete: But how stupid is that? Sorry.

Nikki: Well, it's funny, I'll say actually, it's not stupid, because it's,

Pete: Not nice Pete.

Nikki: Funny, but it's only in that, and I don't mean this in a Pollyannaish way, it's just not stupid, in that, it is how we're designed. Our brains want to be comfortable, our brains want to stay attached to what it is that we believe. And so what's unfortunate, and what 'The Social Dilemma' talks a lot about is that if we're then environmentally only presented or primarily presented with experiences, and people and beliefs that match what we believe, and like and know, our brains are going to choose that every time, because that's how we're designed. It takes conscious willingness. It takes mindfulness to choose to step into discomfort, including opposing viewpoints to one's own.

Pete: Yeah, and so how do you work with clients around this? Because I do think that this is something that we've normalized it, we all experience it. Polarization is both neurological and behavioral. So mindfulness, of course, is the path of everything.

Nikki: Oh, yes.

Pete: But what else? What are some other things that if you're noticing this with, like a family member, or something like that, what would you do?

Nikki: In addition to actually the psychoeducation, that I've been talking about today on the podcast, because it is important to understand it, I want people to understand like, "this is what your brain is going to do". And it's not accurate. I actually, I mean not with people in my life, though I am talking about dialectics a lot with patients. I make people practice it. I actually make people practice it. I actually have people write down dialectical statements. So dialectical thinking, so this 'and' you hear Pete and I do a lot, so to get a dorky grammar person for a second,

Pete: You're my word girl.

Nikki: Yeah, I am a creative writing major, UCSD. The word 'but' grammatically functions to negate the first part of a sentence. So if we go back to what I said earlier about Pete and honesty and white lies, if we're like, "Pete values, honesty, but he tells white lies", what does that imply, Pete?

Pete: That I'm a liar.

Nikki: Right, that you're a liar, and that the honesty doesn't matter. It negates that part of the sentence. So the 'and' helps in framing a dialectic, helps your brain make space for both sides of it. Think of like balance...

Pete: Might create some new neurological pathways.

Nikki: Sure, it sure might. So I might have people write things down. So it can be, I'm trying to think of a kind of a common one that shows up clinically it might be something like somebody is struggling, let's say in a family relationship, like maybe with a parent that they're having a disagreement, maybe they really don't like something that their parent is saying. A dialectic 'be had people practice is, "I don't like what my dad believes. And I love him".

Pete: That's a great one.

Nikki: How about you? What are some things you work on with patients?

Pete:  Yeah, I think you're trying to create some self awareness, some insight around their own belief systems, this idea of no absolute truth. And it would depend, because I wanted to bring in some more of the East, at least for this podcast,

Nikki: Yeah,  please.

Pete: Because a lot of the sutras or mantras that we... so there's one called the Heart Sutra that I like, and it will be something like 'without loss, without gain'. So 'in emptiness there's no form'. 'No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness', 'no ignorance and no end to ignorance'. 'No old age and death and no end to old age and death', 'no suffering, no cause of suffering'. So there's always the whole, you get the...

Nikki: It's the duality.

Pete: Duality, there's the eastern term. See, that's my word girl. I'm the one who is suppose to be bringing that in there, but absolutely.

Nikki: The duality.

Pete: So would you say duality is like a synonym of polarization in a way?

Nikki: I would say no, I would say duality is a synonym of dialectic.

Pete: Okay. Yeah.

Nikki: Because the polarization is the either or right the duality is like the existence of both.

Pete: Oh, thank you. you are so right, yeah.

Nikki: Just love me some words. And I know in other Eastern perspectives like in Taoism as well, there's a lot of dualities, even like I'm thinking, and I'm embarrassed to say I don't know which, I think it comes from..

Pete: Somewhere in the east, just say it's somewhere in the east.

Nikki: I was going to say China actually, because I think it's like the yin and yang symbol,

Pete: Yes, that's Chinese. That's Chinese medicine, actually.

Nikki: Yeah, Chinese medicine. So that's what that's talking about, of the both.

Pete:  I had a client wearing the ying and yang the other day. And so that was also really helpful, I was able to ask, "Well, do you understand what's the meaning of your necklace to you?" And then was able to do some education of what ting and yang actually means. I know we're about to wrap up, but I think for relationships, I see that a lot. Relationships typically exist that are long term based on ying and yang, because that's what that whole principle is, is that these dualities actually work well together.

Nikki:  They do, it's a compliment, and it's more holistic, and so I think in ending here, what I want people to really get curious around and practice some openness towards is, again, there's no one right way to be a person. There's no one right way to believe, there's no one absolute truth in the world. And the more that we can open up to differing experiences and perspectives on our own. We're going to see the world and experience it more accurately.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.