According to psychologist Kirk Schneider, corporate swindlers, stubborn ideologues, and school gunmen all have one thing in common. He calls it “the polarized mind” — when someone believes their point of view is right to the exclusion of all others. He says we see this with bigots, bullies, and even addicts — and that its symptoms are hidden until something terrible happens. Dr. Schneider joins us to talk about his new book, “The Polarized Mind.”

Kirk Schneider, adjunct faculty at Saybrook University; vice president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute; and author of "The Polarized Mind: Why It's Killing Us and What We Can Do About It"

  • thucy

    Perhaps Mr. Schneider’s premise is not only lacking hard scientific data, but is inherently flawed. Clearly there have been many ideologues and singularly visionary (polarized) thinkers who have made significant contributions to civilization.

    After all, our Founding Fathers were certainly polarized in their rejection of the British Crown, and in their decision to wage violent revolutionary war.

    Ghandi and MLK, Jr. also believed their perspective to be right above all others, EVEN as they found ways to communicate their messages non-violently to those who did not share their views. So were many abolitionists prior to the Civil War, who rejected both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.

    They were in fact ideologues, and honorable and effective ideologues, to boot.

    I don’t consider myself ideologically opposed to psychologists like the guest, only semi-opposed to the facile pseudo-scientific theories they conjure. I’d respectfully suggest Mr. Schneider’s premise be examined skeptically.

    • Eleanor Ellis-Lee

      I agree. It does not sound like the speaker is offering up any new explanations that hasn’t been covered before. It does sound like he is trying to sell this “deep psychological treatment” as some magical solution to all societal problems.

      • Kirk Schneider

        Dear Eleanor,

        Please read the book before concluding. There are many fresh angles the book pursues, such as the exploration of social and political problems from an existential point of view, and the application of an “awe-based” psychology to redress a number of these problems. Also, I cite a wealth of qualitative and quantitative research to back up my assertions in the book, and moreover, there is a wealth of new evidence highlighting what you call “deep psychological treatment” (and I might call sustained relational treatment) as core to effective psychological healing. See for example the work of Jonathan Shedler, Bruce Wampold, and David Elkins on this matter.

    • Kirk Schneider

      Dear thucy,
      I appreciate your point but as I said on the show extremism in itself is not necessarily a harmful thing, and as you suggest can be very welcome at times, particularly when (temporarily) opposing another extreme; however, that kind of extremism is not the same as the polarized mind, which emphasizes panic-driven avoidance of competing points of view vs. deliberative affirmation of a contrasting point of view–which is how I’d characterize the kind of revolutionaries you mention in your note. Please read the book to get my full take on this –especially the intro and Part 2 on the “fluid center” of living.

  • Bill

    Just saw a movie about Hannah Arendt known for the phrase banality of evil. She saw Eichmann as a person who “did not think” although he was not dumb. Do you think this is similar or different from your perspective?

  • Eleanor Ellis-Lee

    Maybe the speaker is not getting his point across but so far it sounds like he is just expounding on
    “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (yoda)
    Most of the causes he has listed arise from fear.
    The study of Buddhism and various types of meditative spirituality may have many solutions to these problems- acceptance, release of desires and emotional extremes, etc.

    • Kirk Schneider

      Dear Eleanor,
      I appreciate your comment, and can understand where it comes from in the limited context of my remarks, but you really need to read the book. I say much more than you imply and I embrace the wisdom-traditions (such as Buddhism, Taoism and nondogmatic spiritual and philosophical traditions) in the very same cultures that I critique for their polarizing tyrannies. You will need to read the book to see how I compare and contrast such traditions as Buddhism with the awe-based existential sensibility that I believe dovetails with and in many cases informs these traditions.

  • Ruth

    Is the author familiar with the Nag Hammadi scriptures that talks about a mind parasite (Archons) that makes humans fear filled and obsessed with service to self? I see this dichotomy as being the human mind vs. the Archontic mind. See John Lash for more information on this.

  • geraldfnord

    How are parents to help a child achieve a sense of self-worth when in the marketplace that is the world most people are not considered particularly valuable?

    It’s actually much better than it used to be, largely because more of us are richer and have softer lives than most in the past, but still I am concerned that a child who enters the greater world believing that they have unique worth that will be recognised and validated will be in for a terrible surprise….’Die Welt ist Arm und Mann ist Schreck’ is not as true as it was, but still substantively true, and I consider it lucky that in my home I am valued for much more than for my immediate usefullness to my family, but expect no more in the outside world.

    • Kirk Schneider

      Dear Gerald,
      This is a great point and one I discuss at length in my book–I didn’t have the chance to elaborate on my view of child-rearing but I strongly make the point that parents optimize their care when they can enable children to experience anxiety and difficulty within the context of their affirmation of that child’s worth. Therefore I fully agree with you that kids need to be exposed to challenging circumstances in order to grow up with what it takes to thrive in adulthood (and I give lots of examples of that). Awe-based philosophy is not some pie-in-the-sky preciousness–it’s an earthy/visionary mix.

  • geraldfnord

    I think that testing politicians will not work for two reasons:

    1.) Voters will believe or disbelieve the results based on their previous opinion of the politician, judging the test rather than the politician.

    2.) I have the sneaking suspicion that many of the traits we know we’re supposed to _say_ we hate are actually what we want…people of the ‘authoritarian follower’ sort adore pathology as a matter of course, the rest of us do when the pathology were aimed outward at those other (barely) people not in our notional clan.

  • AyNorm

    Not interested too much in the topic but found Mr. Krasny’s interviewing skills interesting. I found it interesting when he upped the level of conversation and made Schneider stumble for quite some time. Which resulted in Michael had to pulling back. Bravo, Krasny – you’re an excellent interviewer who shows excellent experience and restraint even to some great thinkers.

  • AO Black

    I called in to ask about Attachment theory. I also felt Schneider skated on the question. Kirk Schneider made the issue a philosophical existential rather than extend the biolog ical knowledge of neurological development process problem. In my reading of CHAPTER 3 Attachment THE ATTACHMENT SYSTEM Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-26). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. has a discussion on disorganized attachment and its consequence of polarized mind of the adult. The distinctions on how the single minded thinking occurs does have a biological development base. Sure wish FORUM could get Siegel on to discuss Attachment and the diagnosis of disorganized, ambivalent, or avoidance attachment.

    • Kirk Schneider

      Dear AO Black,
      I never denied that polarized thinking has a biological component and in fact affirmed that; my main issue is that, with the exception of organic brain injury, the biological explanation doesn’t tell us much about why a person becomes polarized (only what the physical symptoms appear to be); it also doesn’t get at the root of our existential condition, which is the tremendous mystery of creation, and which underlies and informs all biological, physical, and psychological manifestations. This “ultimate” substrate is precisely why we cannot fully understand the physics behind biological mechanisms. In any case, I believe we discount the power of environment and nurture at our peril–too many lives have demonstrated that.

  • Pontifikate

    This interview left me cold and bored. I tried, but I found Kirk Schneider to be vague and I almost fell asleep — something I never do during Forum.

  • tandy

    These comments have taken me by surprise. I happened on the interview mid-way through and so came to the website, not only to hear it in its entirety but also to share with others. I was RIVETED by the conversation, particularly by Schneider’s (brief) comments about how different parenting style/focus might ameliorate the cultural conditions he is focused on. It’s rare that I want to call in to Forum, but wanted to call in (but I was driving without a hands-free device) to get his thoughts on individual parenting.

    Given that I found his thinking so refreshingly innovative, and he seemed so very smart to me, these comments have me scratching my head. AM I the only person who was fascinated, and who felt he had a real contribution to make?

    I’m going to listen to the whole piece this weekend, and share it with my partner. I’ll come back here after that; for some reason I feel like defending this guy, given the harsh criticism here.

  • Kirk Schneider

    I appreciate all the comments–and to detractors I mainly want to say please read the book for the fuller story which I was only able to convey partially on the program (I also want to say that I received a flurry of emails that resonated with the work that were not intended for the website). I believe we are at a very critical juncture when it comes to the polarized mind, and where the stakes are monumental (e.g., in terms of violence in our society and world, religious and ethnic divisiveness, mass weaponry, the corporatization of politics, environmental degradation and so on). The book is really an attempt to help us get a handle on the bases for many of these problems that people will not generally read about in the media or even conventional areas of professional social science. However, the book very much reflects a rare convergence of qualitative and quantitative research that highlights both death anxiety and awe as critical components of the problem. With death anxiety and its associated sense of insignificance we have an enhanced understanding of human destructiveness, and with awe and its associated big picture living, we have an expanded toolbox for revitalization. I give many examples of both in the book.

  • Niketana

    I see fear as an essential component of the need to be in the constant state of opposition. On some deep level, the polarized self fears s/he will disappear or be destroyed. The self-righteous idealism can provide vision, but it can be horribly inflexible and even delusional.

  • Lisa

    I think that the idea of creating opportunities for children and teens to have access to mental health treatment during vulnerable times is something that could help people heal and grow before they decide to become “polarized”. Giving children ways to be creative with music and art will give them healthy avenues to express themselves as an outlet. I found Dr. Schneider enlightened and inspiring with his awe promoting ideas. We tend to ignore this way of thinking as we grow into adulthood.

  • ktaylorphd

    I come to this conversation late, as I was unable to listen to the original broadcast. I am surprised to hear that a well-known (and presumably well-read) professional appears to be unaware of constructive-developmentist theory. Yes, minds may be “polarized” or “fixated” at a particular stage (and this is certainly evident historically and cross-culturally), but this is also a normal and expected aspect of human psychological (technically, epistemological) development. It is a “problem” with regard to the expectations of a diverse, globalized community wherein people have to deal wisely and respectfully with multiple perspectives. It is not a disease. It certainly can “cause” many of the problems Dr. Schneider identifies (the “isms,” for example). But many people–most, in fact (based on broad statistical analyses)–live their lives more or less successfully when viewing the world through an absolutist perspective, without making headlines. Yes, brutalizing children can lead to pathology–this is news? Examining case examples of powerful leaders who have done astonishingly terrible things is problematic when one is attempting to generalize to the broad swath of society who are seeing the world through this blinkered world-view but not raping, pillaging, and killing. Finally, one does not get to the “awe-based mind” without first going through this “polarized” state–that includes well-raised children!–and there’s several stepping stones along the way that he appears to elide. Dr. Schneider also does not seem to understand that raising a child with that sense of “chosenness,” “self-acceptance,” and potential for awe at the reality of existence requires having parents at a stage of development that currently less than than half the adult population have achieved–regardless of educational achievement and socio-economic advantages.

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