The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Jan 24, 2006

Partisan Neurons

Now I have an excuse for my behavior the next time I get into a bitter political debate: I can’t help being defensive—it’s hardwired into me!

Those are the findings, at least, of a recent study led by psychologist Drew Westen, as reported by The New York Times today.
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….

….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.

Who would have thought that political dialogue could be emotionally charged and not based on fact or reason? Leading up to the 2004 election, I really believed that a draft dodger would be a better wartime president than a war hero. Totally rational.

Okay, maybe not, but I still want to believe that my political philosophy (and mine alone, naturally) is completely and totally rational. At the same time, these results would explain a lot, and, at the very least, maybe now I can truly appreciate conservative talk radio.

It gets better, though. In their own scientific ode to the GOP propaganda machine, the researchers reached their conclusions by studying what we learned in 2004 was the single greatest problem facing our nation: flip-flopping!
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.

That sounds oddly familiar. At least we know that if their careers in psychology don’t pan out, these researchers could have a promising future with the GOP.


  • The quotes were doctored for maximum effect but presented as factual.

    Those morons. Didn't they think that maybe "committed Republicans or Democrats" might recognize that their candidate's quotes had been doctored, thereby setting off their neurons dealing with emotion rather than logic? That makes their conclusions rather suspect, IMO.

    By Anonymous Tara, at Wed Jan 25, 10:29:00 PM  

  • Good point. I'd really like to see the study to judge exactly how "doctored" the quotes were.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Wed Jan 25, 11:24:00 PM  

  • I always suspect that results like these boil down to 'we've localized thought to the brain'. Better there than, say, the big toe, but did we really need an MRI to show that people get het up over politics? Particularly when their side is made to look foolish?

    Easy money says brains light up this way over virtually any issue with a similar dynamic, so the connection with politics is grandstanding bullshit.

    By Anonymous Steve Josephson, at Thu Feb 09, 03:41:00 PM  

  • 2 points:
    - as far as I can tell, this study hasn't been published in any peer-reviewed journal, and instead just been reported in a conference. So nobody has any idea if they have actually done things right.

    - as a social neuroscientist, I can tell you that their findings are completely unsurprising: there have been similar studies about how people integrate information dissonant with their pre-existing beliefs (I can give references if people are interested). Or as Steve put it, this is grandstanding bullshit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Feb 10, 06:21:00 PM  

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