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.