Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Politically Closed Minds

There is an interesting study coming out from the Emery University Health Sciences Center that used brain scans to reveal how those committed to a political party think about political issues. Briefly, it shows that political partisans -- both Democrats and Republicans -- do not use the "reasoning" centers of their brain at all and get an addict's high by dismissing inconvenient facts.

As the center puts it, “partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making.”

The story says that researchers performed brain scans on individuals who were given two conflicting quotes or facts about a candidate. There were six contradictory pairs each concerning Kerry, Bush, and neutral third parties.

This research showed that subjects were good at picking out these contradictions in political rivals and neutral individuals, but notoriously poor at identifying inconsistencies in those they supported.

More importantly, these brain scans showed how political partisans processed the information they were given. These brain scans showed which parts of the brain were being used as the individual worked on the problem.

They showed that political partisans, when considering the reports about their own candidates, did not use the part of their brain dedicated to reasoning at all. Drew Weston, the study’s leader, said, "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,"

Instead, subjects drew an emotional response. The conflicting information lit up those sections of the brain that regulated emotional response. Ultimately, the subjects simply discarded the information they did not like and drew a totally biased response. When they did, they received a mental jolt “similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”

Republican Blindness

I can relate this to what I have been suggesting about the Bush administration's case for war. They looked at conflicting data, then simply dismissed the data they did not like, while embracing the data that endorsed the conclusions they wanted. They can stand up in front of crowds and honestly say that they did not intentionally mislead the American public. This is because they first deceived themselves. They rewrote the evidence they were given as they looked at it, turning it into the evidence they needed in their minds.

As a result, we have a war with nearly 40,000 fatalities, who-knows-how-many wounded, hundreds of billions of dollars (some estimates place the final cost at $2 trillion) spent that could have gone to such things as education or medical research, all resulting from decisions made by people addicted to dismissing inconvenient facts.

The Democrats Too

I want to stress that the study showed no difference between partisan Republicans and Democrats. Neither side can claim the moral high ground on this issue.

Previously, I pointed to Democratic hypocrisy for condemning Republicans who held a vote in the House of Representatives open long enough to get a winning vote on a bill. In the very same breath in which they condemned the Republicans for using this tactic, they spoke of times when the Democrats were in power and used the same tactic. Yet, nobody even seemed aware at the blatant hypocrisy in this.

I also pointed out Democratic inconsistency in their opposition to outsourcing. They pretend to be concerned with the plight of the poor, yet show no concern with depriving them of opportunities to get work that pays substantially more than any alternative they have available. These jobs not only provide these people with cash, but opportunities for education and medical care than they could have otherwise hoped for.

On the issue of energy, Democrats blame the energy companies for profiteering and promise to bring down energy prices when high oil prices are the best policy available for fighting global warming, spurring development in alternative energy technology, and promoting independence of foreign oil.

How else can we explain this piece of insanity from Attorney General Gonzales? In a speech at Georgetown University, he argued that Bush's warrantless spying was justified because the FISA law allows warrantless surveillance for 15 days following a declaration of war. His argument effects amounts to, "Because Congress said we can spy on Americans for 15 days following a declaration of war, we can spy on Americans for 4 years following a declaration of war."

Clearly, this is a man so partisan that the rational portion of Gonzales' brain has gone completely dark.

Facing the Issue

Reader, I would also like you to note, these results apply to you, and to me.

You and I are both at risk of becoming political partisans. If our brains were being scanned while we examined statements about Bush or Kerry (or about Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan), which parts of our brains would light up while we considered these statements?

Fortunately, the study hints at a way to check this tendency. It pointed out that our political opponents are better at seeing the flaws in our ideas than we are. So, when our critics speak, maybe we should listen to them.

Rather than dismiss them out of hand as idiots for daring to suggest our views are mistaken, perhaps we should take a moment to say to ourselves, “people are notoriously poor at finding the holes in their own ideas so, just maybe, this guy is seeing a problem that I simply do not want to admit.”

Maybe we should get into the habit of actually listening to each other.

The political leaders of either party are probably never going to encourage such a tactic. They need to breed hatred, to close our minds, not to open them.

Besides, it must be a thrill having tens of millions of people willing to accept whatever you say, no matter how absurd, because they have shut off the reasoning portions of their brain and work only on emotion – on an emotion that guarantees approval.

With this type of population, they can get us to do just about anything they want.


We feed this monster of irrationality and contribute to the harm it causes to the degree that we refuse to fight against this partisan way of thinking.

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