January 28th, 2006

“Political thought”–an oxymoron?

A thoughtful reader sent me a link to a NY Times article that may explain a lot.

It’s entitled “A shocker: partisan thought is unconscious.”

A shocker? Hardly; not to this crowd. But interesting nonetheless.

Here’s an excerpt:

Liberals and conservatives can become equally bug-eyed and irrational when talking politics, especially when they are on the defensive.

Using M.R.I. scanners, neuroscientists have now tracked what happens in the politically partisan brain when it tries to digest damning facts about favored candidates or criticisms of them. The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.

“Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here,” said Dr. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory and lead author of the study, to be presented Saturday at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif…

In 2004, the researchers recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several [contradictory] statements [by the candidates] in quick succession…

Researchers have long known that political decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious emotional reactions, a fact routinely exploited by campaign consultants and advertisers. But the new research suggests that for partisans, political thinking is often predominantly emotional.

It is possible to override these biases, Dr. Westen said, “but you have to engage in ruthless self reflection, to say, ‘All right, I know what I want to believe, but I have to be honest.’ “

I don’t want to blow my own horn (okay, maybe I do), but I happen to think I fall into Dr. Westen’s “ruthless self-reflection” category. Of course, I bet that everyone puts him/herself into that category–no one’s a mindless partisan, right? Right? (Except the other side, course).

But that last sentence of his: “All right, I know what I want to believe, but I have to be honest,” is a good summation of the attitude I’ve tried to hold. And I believe it’s what allowed me to change.

One final note: Dr. Westen’s research was done only on men. My guess is that the results would have been the same with partisan women (at least, the ones I know!) But wouldn’t it be fascinating if it were discovered that, on this point at least, women are more rational than men? Not likely, but one can hope.

25 Responses to ““Political thought”–an oxymoron?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

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  2. aqualung Says:

    I think Neo-neocon proves the point of the MRI study perfectly. Afterall, she only links to and advertises Right Wing Blogs, unless of course, it’s to criticize a Left Wing Blog or statement. Way to get past your prejudices I’d say.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    The only surprising thing about theories like “Social-Dominance Orientation” is that they were not published in the Onion.

    Funny you should mention that.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Indeed, there’s nothing surprising about SDO.

  5. maryatexitzero Says:

    The only surprising thing about theories like “Social-Dominance Orientation” is that they were not published in the Onion.

  6. gcotharn Says:

    Sissy,
    Hillary C. is a threatening image. My amygdala undoubtably responds.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    People may have bias but do not choose to act on it.

    Except when casting a vote.

  8. Sissy Willis Says:

    I myself am partial to earlier MRI experiments that compared Democratic and Republican brains’ responses to threatening images, where Democrats’ brains reacted with noticeably more activity in the amygdala. To what degree such differences are the result of nature or nurture would be the really interesting question. There may be more — or less — than meets the eye to the old adage that “a conservative is a liberal mugged by reality.”

    Soft in the head

    Democrat or Republican: Nature vs Nurture?

  9. Motor 1560 Says:

    Social Dominance theory is easy. It was cited here a couple of threads back and there are quite a few critiques of it on the web. It’s a classic teleological explanation model. When you study, for example attitudes, rather than actual behavior it is really easy to put together an ersatz study based on a highly flawed model. It is a “theory” in service to a political bias.

    In this case contemporary stereotypes are used to discover that, for example, people discriminate racially but if the model studied actual behviors we find no racial bias. People may have bias but do not choose to act on it. This is a really simplistic critique and does violence to actual criticism.

    Also, to be honest, when I go to the uni library I have to make every moment count since I usually have a stack of work to do. But, you can do it yourself easily; Google is your friend even if it spits on the Chinese people.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    motor, while you’re in the research library, why not take apart this paper’s methodology?

    “Social-Dominance Orientation – A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political-Attitudes,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 741-763 Oct 1994

    It’s been cited 211 times.

    Pratto, Felicia; Sidanius, Jim; Stallworth, Lisa M.; Malle, Bertram F.

    Abstract

    Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

  11. Holmes Says:

    I detect some bias even in the question given. With Lay, there was an intervening event which would change the way people would view him. Nothing happened with social security between Kerry shifting stances, other than a consultant telling him he needed to switch position. How was Bush supposed to know that Enron was cooking the books?
    So as one commenter said, yes, I would think you would respond more emotionally if you saw that the premise of the “factual” scenario itself was slanted.

  12. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I’m with gcotharn. It was an interesting approach, and there was some effort to filter out bias, but I think this is all quite suspect. I think you would have to run this with dozens of paired individuals, of varying degrees of controversiality. Even then, I’m not sure you would be able to draw conclusions.

  13. M.Vitruvius@gmail.com Says:

    I don’t want to blow my own horn (okay, maybe I do), but I happen to think I fall into Dr. Westen’s “ruthless self-reflection” category. Of course, I bet that everyone puts him/herself into that category–no one’s a mindless partisan, right? Right? (Except the other side, course).

    Ah, but now, there is potentially a way to test self-conceptions like that, even though the precision is likely to be fairly low.

    It’s not clear to me, though, that you could sign yourself up for a test like that, knowing what it is, and still have it remain accurate.

    –Marcus Vitruvius

  14. gcotharn Says:

    This “study” is chat-able, but I’m highly skeptical of it’s scientific value. Legitimate methodology would require extreme rigor in its conception and implementation.

    I suspect it was quite sloppy to use politics for a brain study. I suspect they had an agenda – even if it was only to garner wide publicity.

  15. David Says:

    I wonder…how would the study have come out if the beliefs in question were not about politics? Certainly, there is also plenty of evidence for irrational thinking about things like personal finance and business strategy.

    Indeed, aircraft accident reports (and near-accident reports) often show a failure to re-examine a hypothesis as a cause. I’m thinking particularly about an airliner that managed to run out of fuel over the Atlantic while the flight crew convinced themselves the problem was with the fuel gauges…(by rare good luck, the engines finally flamed out when they were in gliding distance of an airport)

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    “Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here,” said Dr. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory and lead author of the study, to be presented Saturday at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif…

    That may have something to do with a person’s natural pain resistance. If people are not mature and just want to ball up into a 60s socialist mentality to feel safe, then I don’t think they are gonna want to change.

    People who master their instincts, the natural compulsions that compel us to do pleasurable things and to avoid painful things, are obviously better suited to critical thought and cognition using rationalism instead of emotionalism.

    That explains the Marine Corps and Hollywood, and why their political philosophies differ.

    For the Marines, pain is weakness leaving the body. For Hollywood, pain is a sign that something bad is happening and you must stop it.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Epi – Does Celexa come in a rainbow of fruity flavors? If not, I’ll stick with Paxil. 40mg a day and Chomsky starts to make sense…

  18. meander Says:

    Glad you brought this up…I thought of you and Dr. Sanity as soon as I read about it and hoped you’d discuss it a little. It’s a very interesting finding to be aware of…I know it made be determined to be a bit more self critical.

  19. Epaminondas Says:

    Let’s just all take 20 mg of Salexa twice a day and then we will be objective and impartial

  20. Motor 1560 Says:

    Neo: If you get the information, please post it; with your critique of course. This is the kind of study that really makes my eyebrows hit my hairline (No mean feat these days). I’d like to take their research design apart. If it’s in a journal somewhere, let us know. I’m in and out of a university research library all the time and would be glad to scan it.

  21. ViVi Says:

    TAG!

    Four (+1) sites I visit daily (among others):

    Neo-Neocon
    ::snip::

    Four victims I am tagging:

    Neo-Neocon
    ::snip::

  22. Harry Mallory Says:

    I went out and bought me one of them MRI things and dragged it up to my appartment and hooked myself up in it. It told me that I was being perfectly rational in my judgements and everybody else was off there rockers.

    So there.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    Jen: I didn’t include this because I didn’t want to make the excerpt too long, but here’s the relevant part:

    In 2004, the researchers recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession.

    The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled. Moments later, the participants read a remark that showed the candidate reversing his position. The quotes were doctored for maximum effect but presented as factual.

    The Republicans in the study judged Mr. Kerry as harshly as the Democrats judged Mr. Bush. But each group let its own candidate off the hook.

    Actually, come to think of it, I’d like to look at those statements. I wonder what was actually said. It’s possible that there truly might have been some difference in how much each candidate reversed himself in the statements the researchers presented.

    Hmmm. I’d love to have the details of this one. If anyone can provide them, please do!

  24. Jen Says:

    The question I have about this study is: What exactly was presented as “fact” and how was it supported? Because I can imagine a very emotional response to something that you feel is a lie foisted on an unsuspecting public.

    Or are we talking about the same thing? Perhaps when you are so deeply partisan, it is impossible to view information that contradicts your beliefs as any thing other than a lie. hmmmm.

  25. Tom Grey Says:

    I just read that men are DIFFERENT than women with respect to feeling pleasure at Justice; at punishment against those who have been unfair.

    Women, even those who accept the need for the punishment, seem to have more empathy.

    In a Myers-Briggs type(?) test I recall a question: which is worse, to be unfair or merciless? (The Thinkers choose unfair; the Feelers choose merciless).

    But yes, look at the facts. Big problem — most important analysis is about the future. No facts there, yet!

    Like you mentioned in changing mind postss, the Angry Left keeps making (gloomy) predictions that don’t come true. You might suggest a game with your Liberal friends — predict the future!

    How many Americans will die in Iraq in 2006?
    How many Americans will own/ be buying their own homes by the end of 2006?
    How many women will get abortions?

    There is another big problem, though, in the question I like to ask: What possible facts/ events could occur to show that your analysis is wrong?

    10 000 Americans dying? 1000? 100?
    10% unemployment? 8%? 6%?

    The typical answers include “it’s not that simple”, “who knows what the future number will be.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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