Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Partisanship and (un)reason

This just in: partisan loyalty shuts down your brain.

Via Ron Bailey at Hit & Run:

Democrats and Republicans alike are adept at making decisions without letting the facts get in the way, a new study shows.

(In other news: dogs are adept at barking.)

And they get quite a rush from ignoring information that's contrary to their point of view.

Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects' brains were monitored while they pondered.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

(They needed a study for that?)

The tests involved pairs of statements by the candidates, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, that clearly contradicted each other. The test subjects were asked to consider and rate the discrepancy. Then they were presented with another statement that might explain away the contradiction. The scenario was repeated several times for each candidate.

The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.

"The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen said.

Presented with the results of the study, Republicans vehemently insisted that its findings applied mainly to Democrats, while the Democrats maintained the reverse.

Just kidding.


Anonymous said...

This just in - Emory University researchers have also confirmed that the sun rises in the East, bears continue to leave unsightly messes in the woods, and the Pope stubbornly insists on remaining Catholic.

Anonymous said...


We had fun with this yesterday over at centerfield. It made my day.

Since I'm not sure how to contact you otherwise, I want to point out the following Boston Globe article since it seems to be something that's right up your alley: Male Students Sues School for Systemic Bias Against Boys

I'm starting a thread on it over at centerfield, too.

bk from centerfield

Cathy Young said...

BK--thanks. And interesting item. Btw, my email address (two of them as a matter of fact!) is on the home page of the blog. ;)

Anonymous said...

I find this study deeply disturbing. While the tests were specifically on devotees of the United States's two major parties, I don't see any reason to assume this phenomenon wouldn't be found in anyone else who strongly believes something. And that's damn scary, because the implication is that we believe what we believe not from reason, but from arbitrary emotional commitment.

But one can never disregard science simply because the results disturb one--and in this case any fool trying to do so would surely die of irony.

But similarly one can never renounce ideology altogether simply because it could very well be that one is not as rational as one would tend to think one is.

I guess all you can do is check your premises. Check them hard, and if you still think you're right, keep on fighting harder than ever before. Figuratively speaking.

Cathy Young said...

Zack, interesting point. I think one good measure of how "rational" you are is how you deal with information that contradicts your deeply held beliefs, whether it's about a political candidate or about anything else. I think that for a lot of people the first impulse is to try to find some means of explaining away this information.

reader_iam said...

I can't decide whether I like your line about dogs barking better or the kicker to your post.

Funniness aside, there are some sobering and disheartening implications here.


Anonymous said...

I don't see any reason to assume this phenomenon wouldn't be found in anyone else who strongly believes something.

I completely agree. In fact I'm pretty sure I've seen examples of similar phenomena in academia, when members of various theoretical camps argue with (or past) each other, as well as in various fandoms. I think at bottom, human beings are a lot less rational than we like to imagine we are.

Anonymous said...

This blog has kinda petered out since NYT's "select" regime, but attempted to score pundits on their partisanship.

But what Zack said really hits home for me. I gave up discussing religion with people many years ago, as I found little point in debating a subject that has nothing to do with reason. Politics has become increasingly more "religious" in mindset (the "saved vs the unsaved", "don't question my faith and don't bother me with the facts" ect..) - so I added that to my list of "don't discuss".

Revenant said...

The same phenonmenon crops up in familial and romantic relationships.

It is probably an evolutionary adaptation to group living -- if we didn't tend to suppress our distrust of people in our social group society would fall apart.

Cathy Young said...

I agree that this probably applies to any strongly held beliefs, not just about politics.

What troubles me is that these days, so many people don't even make an effort to look fairly at both sides -- they wave their partisan bias like a banner.

Revenant said...

What troubles me is that these days, so many people don't even make an effort to look fairly at both sides -- they wave their partisan bias like a banner.

Do things really seem worse to you? To me it seems like the only difference between the 80s, 90s, and the present day is that there are a lot more outlets for people to express partisan rancor in. There weren't a whole lot of Democrats interested in giving Reagan's ideas a fair hearing, or many Republicans interested in listening to Jimmy Carter. Go back a few generations more and party affiliation was even more openly tied to cultural identity -- e.g., if you lived in the south, you voted Democrat, period.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article on Tech Central Station about developing world views that are not based in reason, and serve merely to make one feel good:

Cathy Young said...

April, very interesting piece. Thanks for the link.

drumgurl said...

I too found the TCS Daily piece interesting. However, I find it odd that people who call themselves conservatives love Milton Friedman -- because Friedman calls himself a liberal (and so does Hayek). Does it just come down to how we define liberal and conservative?

I do not consider myself a conservative. According to the dictionary, I'm not. But according to Arnold Kling, I certainly am.

Perhaps it is a negative emotional response to Pat Robertson and the IWF that I don't want to call myself conservative? Not that I'd call myself a Democrat, either, which is definitely a negative response to Keynesian economics.

Anonymous said...

People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive. - Blaise Pascal, The Art of Persuasion

I also found the Tech Central article interesting, although the implications one is left with vis a vis Friedman, Volcker and Monetarism are somewhat misleading. Friedman was a Nixon economic adviser when things went bad, he was highly critical of the Volcker reign as Fed Chairman and the decisions he made, and Friedman has recently admitted that "The use of quantity of money as a target has not been a success".

Anonymous said...

Its kind of funny to me that the TCS link basically reinforced my opinion of why political dialogue is so nasty these days. IMHO, the boomers, those just younger, and the boomer's parents are still obsessed with the late '60s, early 70s cultural changes. I have found that it is nearly impossible to have a conversation with a political conservative who is 45+, without the 60s & 70s coming up. Either they were conservative then, and felt marginalized and are still mad about it. Or, they completely bought all the tenants of the counter-cultural revolution, realized those tenents were flawed (as are all new ideas), switched to conservatism, and now have all the zeal and anger of the newly converted.

As I was only just BORN in the late 60s, I am really more interested in what is happening NOW. I believe that it is important to learn from history, but it is not particularly useful to either filter every political idea through 1968 or to compare everything to what liberals from 1968 would think. I seriously wonder if many conservatives (especially some of the loudest pundits) have even READ a liberal rag since the 1970s. I don't mean the NYT. I mean a REAL liberal rag, like the Utne Reader, Mother Jones, or ODE. Contrary to popular conservative opinion, you are much more likely to see an article praising micro-credit programs or polution credit exchanges than articles praising communism or welfare.

Sorry to rant, it just irks me to no end that ideas can't just be evaluated by their merit alone, regardless of whether the idea came from the left, right, or center.


Anonymous said...

One of my favourite quips has been "It isn't the things I don't know that are a problem ; it's the things I know that aren't so"

Mike said...

One who, for instance, believes that there's never any difference between the political parties is just as likely to fail to deal with the information that contradicts _that_ deeply held belief.

Not that there's any of THAT going on here. Of course not. Kerry would have been worse!

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