Is Arguing About Politics a Waste of Time?

This study suggests an interesting reason why that may be the case:

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. “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.” Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions — essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted — not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Westen. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

During the study, the partisans were given 18 sets of stimuli, six each regarding President George W. Bush, his challenger, Senator John Kerry, and politically neutral male control figures such as actor Tom Hanks. For each set of stimuli, partisans first read a statement from the target (Bush or Kerry). The first statement was followed by a second statement that documented a clear contradiction between the target’s words and deeds, generally suggesting that the candidate was dishonest or pandering.

Next, partisans were asked to consider the discrepancy, and then to rate the extent to which the person’s words and deeds were contradictory. Finally, they were presented with an exculpatory statement that might explain away the apparent contradiction, and asked to reconsider and again rate the extent to which the target’s words and deeds were contradictory.

Behavioral data showed a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning: partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Importantly, in both their behavioral and neural responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions for the neutral control targets, such as Hanks, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

While reasoning about apparent contradictions for their own candidate, partisans showed activations throughout the orbital frontal cortex, indicating emotional processing and presumably emotion regulation strategies. There also were activations in areas of the brain associated with the experience of unpleasant emotions, the processing of emotion and conflict, and judgments of forgiveness and moral accountability.

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning (as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion). The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged, says Westen.

The investigators hypothesize that emotionally biased reasoning leads to the “stamping in” or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associating the participant’s “revisionist” account of the data with positive emotion or relief and elimination of distress. “The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,” Westen says.

Granted, this was a study of committed partisans, and so it only included individuals with a high degree of emotional attachment to one party or the other. At the same time, it is somewhat troubling that people are (paradoxically) the least rational about the subjects in which they are the most emotionally invested.  A good reminder next time we are engaged in a flame-war, I suppose.

16 Responses to Is Arguing About Politics a Waste of Time?

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Studies such as this are indeed interesting.

    I caution against an extreme over-reliance on cold calculation and equally extreme disavowals of the validity and legitimacy of human emotions.

    We have emotions and instincts for a reason – survival. They alert us to threats and dangers and they provide incentives to avoid bad situations.

    Of course reason is a higher function, one unique to man, and so we should always strive for rational analysis. What I see so often, though, are claims that these two ways of analyzing and experiencing things are mutually exclusive. They are not.

    In the modern world I believe the tension between the two stems from what I would call an information overload. In past societies, and this is just a hypothesis, people had limited and often highly trusted sources of information – the church, their local leaders, etc.

    Now there is a deluge of data, and even people with above average intelligence and education can’t be sure who to trust, especially in politics, especially in the social sciences. How can we know that the methodologies used are sound? That their creators aren’t ideologically biased? Climategate shows we cannot be sure, that the science is not settled, and that the person who claims to bring you “the facts” could be bringing you falsehoods.

    What positions we take in politics, I believe, comes down to a few things – and one of them is who we put our trust in for an accurate picture of reality.

    We also have a legitimate desire to pick a side and stick with it. Once we do that, we just want to go about our business, we want our side to prevail.

    I’ve changed teams more than once in my life and it gets old. Not only that, but when you do it, people question your stability and resolve. Consistency is so highly valued among people of all educational and intelligence levels that people will forgo changing their opinion in the face of clear evidence so that they don’t appear to have been wrong. There is massive pressure to be consistent, and less pressure to simply be right.

    Of course, oftentimes, people aren’t mentally agile enough to understand that things they believe are contradictions are only really antagonisms. So they will embrace contradiction instead of exploring the possibility that the two premises are both true.

  • “At the same time, it is somewhat troubling that people are (paradoxically) the least rational about the subjects in which they are the most emotionally invested.”

    I don’t see the paradox. I expect this all the time, especially in myself.

    Aren’t dispassion and “apatheia” normally considered virtues that correct emotionalism?

    How many partisans are actually familiar with the basic rules of logic and non-contradiction? Their basic failure is they forget that only God is above criticism.

  • Phillip says:

    One must be careful with such studies. First, no one really knows how the brain works. We have a good sense of what parts of the brain do, but some areas of the brain such as the frontal lobes are still unclear. Also how neural networks interact to aid thought is quite another thing.

    Then there are concerns about fMRI actually proving what it sets out to do. Many questions here especially about other stimuli during the test interfering etc. Also questions about statistical methods. See here:

    http://www.scienceprogress.org/2009/04/fmri-mindreading-studies/

    Bottom line. In 100 years this study might be in the medical library next to phrenology.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “and politically neutral male control figures such as actor Tom Hanks”

    An odd choice considering that Hanks is a left wing activist and appeared in the Dan Brown Catholic bashing Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

    Color me unimpressed by the study. We are in our infancy in understanding the human brain and I think we will never truly comprehend the human mind. Political beliefs can change swiftly depending upon the circumstances: Reagan Democrats, Obama Republicans, etc, and I believe most people are always susceptible to a convincing argument. It may not convince them today, but it may give food for thought that will cause a modification in belief down the road combined with other factors.

    “In 100 years this study might be in the medical library next to phrenology.”

    Words to live by Phillip in regard to much of cutting edge science.

  • John Henry says:

    I take your point that our understanding of brain functioning is incomplete. At the same time, even if the observations about the specific areas of the brain incorrect, the study still provides strong evidence about the behavior of partisans. We may be wrong about the mechanism, but not the behavior. The specific criticisms you raise relate to behavior.

    An odd choice considering that Hanks is a left wing activist and appeared in the Dan Brown Catholic bashing Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

    The study was conducted in 2004. The Da Vinci Code came out in 2006; Hanks has never been a particularly controversial figure. Additionally, the study found that people were able to identify hypocritical statements when made by Mr. Hanks and the opposing candidate; just not when made by their preferred candidate. This suggests Mr. Hanks was not closely identified by the respondents with either party.

    Political beliefs can change swiftly depending upon the circumstances: Reagan Democrats, Obama Republicans, etc, and I believe most people are always susceptible to a convincing argument.

    Of course, people can change their minds. What this study highlights is that committed partisans – not the sort of people who change their minds every election – appear to be unable to process new information effectively. Again, this is true whether you accept the posited physical mechanisms or not; confirmation bias is a widely recognized and studied phenomenon.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Actually John Henry, I think committed partisans are often able to process new information quite effectively in support of their position. Rather like scientists who get a grant to run an experiment and, mirabile dictu, the data from the experiment supports the thesis they had before the experiment was run.

    There are many more things in Heaven and in Earth when it comes to human reasoning than are dreamt of by Westen and his brain scanners.

    Oh, and Mr. Westen is a partisan Democrat and a pretty silly one to boot. He believes that Democrats lose elections because they make rational arguments while Republicans rely upon emotional arguments:

    “In the last forty-five years, the American people have elected only three Democratic residents of the United States. Democrats—from the grassroots on up to the party leadership—are befuddled, confused, and angry. What led me to write this book was exactly what leads people to do everything they do, including vote: strong emotions. And that’s the central message of the book. Everything we know about mind, brain, and politics tells us that there are three things that determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions. Democrats have insisted on starting at the bottom of this hierarchy, practicing “trickle up” politics—the theory that voting decisions trickle up from voters’ rational assessments of candidates’ policy positions. Trickle up politics turns out to be as valid as trickle down economics. The proof is in the White House, the Congress, and the federal judiciary. The antidote lies not in familiar prescriptions of moving to the center or the left but simply in moving the electorate. The way to win elections, particularly against a party that understands how to move people, is to understand the political brain—how it evolved, how it works, and how central emotion is to it.”

    http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/publicaffairsbooks-cgi-bin/display?book=9781586484255&view=note

    Democrats don’t lose elections in the view of Mr. Westen because their policies stink. They lose elections because they are too rational! This is the junkiest of junk science.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Drew Westen is a regular columnist at the Huffington Post and here is a link to a column where he tells Democrats how to sell the pro-abort message:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/drew-westen/from-nuanced-to-principle_b_119810.html

    “Obama wasn’t going to win over the majority of Warren’s parishioners, but he could have spoken to them in their own language while winning the hearts and minds of the majority who were listening on television. He might have begun by acknowledging the obvious, that he knew he wasn’t going to convince most of Pastor Rick’s flock, but that he was nonetheless one of them, with a comment like, “Well, I knew at some point I was going to be in there with the lions. I know many of you won’t agree with me, but I hope my answer at least leaves you with as much respect for me and my beliefs as I have for you and yours.” He could then have continued, once again drawing them in while addressing concerns about him that had been raised in recent weeks, “The Bible says that pride is a sin, and I’d be showing more pride than even John McCain thinks I have, with those celebrity and Moses ads, if I told you that I know with certainty when life begins. I wish I did, because then this would be an easy question. But here’s where I stand”:

    No one truly knows what’s in the mind of God, and I just don’t like the idea of government telling a woman or couple when they should or shouldn’t start their family based on somebody else’s interpretation of Scripture. We need to find the common ground on abortion, reflecting our shared moral beliefs, not the beliefs that divide us. We are all united in the belief that we should do everything we can to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions, starting with instilling in our children both the values and the knowledge to make good choices. And we all agree that abortion shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control and shouldn’t be an option late in pregnancy except when the mother’s life or health is in danger. I could go on and talk about how misguided I think our currently policies are that deny access to birth control to women and teenagers in our inner cities, which does nothing but perpetuate the cycle of poverty, stop young people from getting an education and fulfilling their God-given potential, and make it more likely that they’ll have children before they’re ready to be good parents. But the main point I want to make is that in this country, we don’t force one person to live by another person’s faith. This should be a personal and moral issue, not a political one.

    This is a variation of one of the messages we tested, although it is considerably longer than those messages, which we kept to about 45 seconds. I revised it here to fit both the audience and the central narrative of Obama’s campaign (the theme of focusing on what unites and not what divides us).

    I’m not claiming that this is the best or only narrative Obama could have offered on abortion. Central to Obama’s appeal is his genuineness, and the only messages he should offer voters are those that fit his values and style. But this way of talking about abortion has several features that render it a strong, principled message. It isn’t hard to come away with the central theme, because it’s offered in both the opening sentence and at the end: That as long as we do not all share the same religious beliefs, the government has no business forcing one person to live by another person’s faith. It speaks to religious freedom and government intrusion, two themes usually associated with narratives on the right but that should be central to a progressive narrative on abortion. It recognizes, as Obama did in his actual answer, that this is a moral issue, and it builds on common ground, emphasizing themes like reducing teen pregnancies and instilling values that are shared by both the left and right and hence are likely to be compelling to people in the center. And it re-enfranchises males by reminding men that they have a stake in this, too: that although ultimately the decision to abort or not to abort resides with the mother, women usually make these decisions together with their husbands or boyfriends, and that a woman or couple, not the government, should make these kinds of intensely personal decisions.”

    Gee, I wonder if Westen is one of those partisans who are unable to process new information effectively?

  • Eric Brown says:

    Don,

    I’d think his basic assessment about the way people vote, generally speaking, is quite true. The argument about Democrats offering “rational” policies and Republicans offering “emotionally-based” appeals is false. I think it goes both ways and on different issues.

    But his general assessment that how the electorate feels at the moment usually does decide elections.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    In any election Eric you are going to have hard core partisans who will not be moved from their position, and to this extent the analysis is correct, although we needed no “scientific” explanation for that. That bit of wisdom is, I suspect, about as old as elections. What is also as old as elections is that hard core partisans are usually not sufficient, certainly beyond the Congressional district level, to win a majority and that political parties have to hone their messages to attract a majority. How that is done, and how it shifts from election cycle to election cycle, has always been one of the more interesting aspects of politics for me.

  • John Henry says:

    In any election Eric you are going to have hard core partisans who will not be moved from their position, and to this extent the analysis is correct, although we needed no “scientific” explanation for that. That bit of wisdom is, I suspect, about as old as elections. What is also as old as elections is that hard core partisans are usually not sufficient, certainly beyond the Congressional district level, to win a majority and that political parties have to hone their messages to attract a majority. How that is done, and how it shifts from election cycle to election cycle, has always been one of the more interesting aspects of politics for me.

    I get the sense that you are hostile to the study, but I’m not clear on why. Mr. Westen can make inaccurate and superficial political diagnoses; that does not mean he is inaccurately reporting the results of a study that describes partisans of both parties as bad at processing information running contrary to their ideologies. He is hardly the first person to notice this, and, as you’ve acknowledged, there are plenty of voters who will never be persuaded from one election to the next (probably most of the people in the study meet that description).

    I agree that studying the Independents who move back and forth and determine most elections is interesting; but that does not mean the study doesn’t tell us something useful about the rest of the population or about how people with deeply held commitments process new information. That, to me, is one of the most valid complaints about the MSM: when over 90% of the reporters are Democrats, there are bound to be striking differences in how information is processed and reported by these individuals, regardless of their intentions. The old joke about a Republican president seen walking across the Potomac River remains as true as ever: The Wall Street Journal headline will read: “Republican President Walks on Water”; The New York Times headline will read “Republican President Can’t Even Swim”. These types of studies highlight how flawed some of our thought processes can be; that’s a valuable thing to keep in mind for the sake of intellectual honesty.

  • Phillip says:

    I think my point was that this work may actually not actually show what it purports to show. The psychology may be what you point out. But the biology, at least as argued in the study, may be completely false. Again, fMRI data may one day be shown to be even more subject to flaws, including observer bias, that global warming data. :)

  • John Henry says:

    Again, fMRI data may one day be shown to be even more subject to flaws, including observer bias,

    Oh, right. As I said above, I concede that we may be wrong about the physical process in the brain (the mechanism); but I think the study is useful in describing behavior even if we’re wrong about that part. As it is, I still find the guesses about what’s happening in the brain interesting, even if incomplete at this point.

  • Phillip says:

    If one takes it as an argument from psychology and not neuroscience okay. But I have serious doubts about such studies ever being able to prove a link between our thoughts and neurobiological processes.

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