[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
By BENEDICT CAREY
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
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
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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