Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MRI Study: Partisanship is Emotion Driven

When committed partisans were asked to evaluate quotes showing either Bush or Kerry had flip-flopped on prior statements, they were subjected to functional MRI that locates which areas of the brain are most metabolically active. NYT reports:

After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded. The "cold reasoning" regions of the cortex were relatively quiet.

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.' "


This is a preliminary study not yet being published, only being presented at a meeting, but the findings are clearly provocative. It's hard to draw specific conclusions about the specific areas activated, except that I would point out that in general, limbic system structures were active, while presumably the author implies that frontal structures used for reasoning were silent.

The limbic system is not simply the 'emotions' system producing minute-to-minute emotional states; its function also relates to forming long-term attachments to important people in our lives. To me, this study speaks to the powerful biological and psychological attachment that people have to political parties and their leaders, akin to the phenomenon of transference (when feelings toward a strong love-object like a parent are transferred to a psychotherapist).

It is nearly impossible for 'reason' alone to override these types of primal loyalties and attachments, because one cannot win over someone whose root valuations radically differ from yours, no matter how artfully you turn a phrase or construct syllogisms. And it is very difficult for cognitive theories like Lakoff's to account for behaviors arising primarily from emotional processes or predict them with any accuracy.

The implication for centrist politics is that drawing people to the center may need to rely more on personalities--candidates with charisma, resonating with regional cultural sensibilities, or a strong military record-- than the modality of 'cold reasoning' that perhaps many centrists are the most comfortable with by their psychological makeup.

Hat Tip: Centerfield

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