Daily Archives: January 26, 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.


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