If you saw the last Presidential debate in Boca or have been have been watching any television at all for the last two years you know that politics in this country are more polarized today than we have been since the end of the US Civil War in 1879. In fact, we have been becoming increasingly more polarized and deadlocked for over 30 years now. Which means today our leaders can agree on almost nothing.

And you probably think, well, yea, that’s how it works – that’s how it’s always been. It’s just the nature of politics. But the fact is that if you look back at voting patterns over a couple of hundred years or so you see it’s not how it’s always been, and in fact in the past we enjoyed many decades of effective non-partisan consensus-based problem-solving – and were actually able to fix problems in this country.

But not today. Today we’re on the verge of serious trouble …And this is happening at a time when our deficit is increasing by $4.2 billion a day, millions of Americans are in desperate need of jobs, food and housing, and our education system is in a free-fall. Yet our leaders and our country are too divided to even talk to each other about these issues.

And you know why? Well we don’t really know. So about 15 years ago I set out to study these kinds of stuck conflicts by reading everything I could get my hands on in the science of intractable conflict….and frankly I didn’t get very far…because all the studies seem to provide different pieces of the puzzle but no puzzle… so I put together a team of very talented, brilliant, somewhat crazy and wonderful complex systems scientists – physicists, psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists, mathematicians…I even moved to Poland for a while to work with some of them…And we collected all kinds of data on stuck conflicts through archives, case studies, lab experiments, computer modeling…And we found some interesting things about these kinds of conflicts.

Particularly about what applied mathematics – and the notion of attractors – or patterns mathematicians see in data when they track something across time which settle in and resist change – have to tell us about why we are so stuck and what and I can do about it. Because we think that attractor dynamics can help reveal the essence why we have been so stuck for decades.

When very complicated problem sets start interacting and spreading and then collapse into over-simplified patterns that last for years – they are known as attractors.

They call them attractors because they in fact attract us in. And draw us into very simple ways of thinking or feeling or acting that can feel impossible to change.

We see attractor patterns like this when people get stuck in an addiction cycle and can’t kick it, or with chronic traffic jams in cities, unending wars, and even in planetary orbits. In Washington, Florida and across the country, we are stuck in patterns of how we think and feel about THEM – the BLUES or the REDS who are what’s wrong with this country.

But its important to understand that these attractors are NOT CREATED BY ANY ONE THING, but by many things but more importantly by how all of these things come together to form powerful constraints on how we think, feel and act. It’s like we are trapped in the gravity of an attractor.

Continued in Part 2 forthcoming next week...


Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.