[Paleopsych] NYT: A Shocker: Partisan Thought Is Unconscious

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Sun Jan 29 21:01:00 UTC 2006

A Shocker: Partisan Thought Is Unconscious


    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.

    The results are the latest from brain imaging studies that provide a
    neural explanation for internal states, like infatuation or
    ambivalence, and a graphic trace of the brain's activity.

    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.

    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

    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.' "

    He added, "It speaks to the character of the discourse that this
    quality is rarely talked about in politics."

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