Friday, January 29, 2010

This is your brain on politix

The piece below was originally part of a longer post I wrote in September 2009, but I decided it didn't really belong in that post, which was already more than long enough. As you probably know, I don't normally "do" politix on this blog, but some things just need saying. I do think it's a shame that disagreement over politics can be so bitterly divisive, but I guess that's part of what makes online life so "interesting."

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We have to get past this notion of politics-as-Super Bowl, where you root for your team and I root for mine, and all that matters is which team wins, and thus there's no hope (nor even any real reason) for conciliation on either side. If we don't defeat that, it will defeat us.
~ Steve Salerno, writing on
SHAMblog about President Obama's State of the Union speech 

A few months ago I read a fascinating book called Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. (Prometheus Press, 2008). I think the book offers insight into the ruthless and power-hungry among us – politicians, corporate tycoons, and even some selfish-help/New-Wage gurus. (The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout may give more insight into the latter, but I haven't read it yet so I can't say for sure.)

But I promised you politix in my little prelude, so I'm sticking to that for now. In a section on 'feel good' politics (pp. 187-192 of the trade paperback edition of Evil Genes), Dr. Oakley cites a brain imaging study by psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues at Emory University. The study took place at the time of the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential race, and involved two groups: fifteen committed Democrats and fifteen equally committed Republicans. Participants were hooked up to MRIs to monitor their brain activity. Each group was presented with incidents in which "their" candidate appeared to contradict himself, as well as similar instances in which the opposing candidate appeared to contradict himself, and similar examples regarding a more "neutral" target, such as actor Tom Hanks, who is such a nice guy that most folks, regardless of politics, seem to like him.

Then the participants were asked to give opinions about their candidate, the opposing candidate, and the neutral target, based upon the information they had just been given. All of them, Democrats and Republicans alike, found a way to put a positive spin on "their" candidate, despite the ostensibly damning information, and they also found a way to put a negative spin on the "other" candidate. As Drew Westen explained in the introduction to his own book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,* they clearly saw the opposing candidate's inconsistencies and contradictions, rating him close to an average of "4" on a 4-point rating scale. For their candidate, on the other hand, the ratings averaged closer to a "2."
As for the neutral target, their conclusions were more balanced and seemed to be based upon the information they'd been given. None of that is terribly noteworthy, but what was noteworthy was the difference in brain activity when emotions were at stake. Dr. Oakley writes:
When this "emote control" began to occur, parts of the brain normally involved in reasoning were not activated. Instead, a constellation of activations occurred in the same areas of the brain where punishment, pain, and negative emotions are experienced (that is, in the left insula, lateral frontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Once a way was found to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted, the neural punishment areas turned off, and the participant received a blast of activation in the circuits involving rewards – akin to the high an addict receives when getting his fix. In essence, the participants were not about to let facts get in the way of their hot-button decision making and quick buss of reward. "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."
On the other hand, when participants had no particular emotional investment in their opinion – as with statements concerning Tom Hanks – a completely different process occurred in the brain. It was a more straightforward, rational process, involving only the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion. 

Oakley writes that Westen's study was the first to describe the neural processes underlying political judgment and decision making, though the significance of the findings ranges beyond the study of politics. One obvious takeaway lesson is that all of us are far less rational than we often like to believe, as Dr. Oakley writes:
...simply looking at the research results, one must conclude that people's first emotional response about what's wrong, who is to blame, or how to proceed, particularly in relation to complex issues, must always – always – be considered suspect. There is no simple algorithm for teasing rationality from emotion. An ardent Democrat or Republican, a dyed-in-the-wool communist union organizer, a young devotee of Scientology, a Palestinian suicide bomber, or a KKK grand kleagle could each read the above paragraphs and think, I'm not irrational – it's those other idiots who can't see the obvious. But we all have pockets of irrationality, some large, some small, no matter if we are mathematicians who make our living doing proofs, wealthy philanthropists, or stay-at-home housewives.
This research definitely raises the question of how the brain scans might differ between, say, livid Obama critics who originally protested his September 2009 speech to school kids but admitted that they changed their minds after reading or hearing the speech, and livid Obama critics who read or heard the speech but continued to grumble that it was "indoctrination," that the original speech had been "cleaned up," and that Obama has sinister hidden agendas for the US. Or, for that matter, the respective differences in the brains of those who thought his January 27 State of the Union speech was either (1) masterful and even brave, because he dared to criticize the Supreme Court; or (2) the same old crap from a "socialist" President who had the unmitigated gall to publicly criticize the Supreme Court; or (3) a pretty good speech overall but still not necessarily a harbinger of real change in this country. (I'm in category number (3), by the way; I thought it was a good speech and an eloquent plea for bipartisanship, but I rather suspect that we're in for another round of the same old politix. Call me jaded, but that's pretty much my default mode, though I would love to be proven wrong.**)

And Westen's research certainly sheds some light on why many folks are crowing triumphantly about Scott Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts, claiming that "the people have spoken" in that state about what they think of Obama's health care plan; and why many other folks are more easily able to see that Massachusetts already had a cushy state health care system in place, for which Brown himself voted. (For the record, I think the national health care plan(s) currently before us stink, being unthinkably costly and offering the worst of everything for everyone but the insurance companies. Something has to be done, but this ain't it.)

Let's face it: We all have an endless capacity for rationalization, especially when it comes to our politics or other belief systems. We all rationalize. I do it. You do it. The proud, patriotic, we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-health-care-plan folks who love to bash "the libtards" do it. Progressives do it. Conservatives do it. Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green Party folks do it. For that matter, skeptics and believers do it. (Birds and bees and even educated fleas probably do it too, at least to the extent that their cognitive hardware will allow, but we just don't understand their respective languages yet enough to really tell.)

Sometimes, agreeing to disagree is the best option, and it really can be done without childish name-calling or contemptuous dismissal of the other person.

Not that this is going to keep me from my own childish snarking about the stuff in the New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality industry that I find snarkworthy, mind you, but I just thought I'd put in my two-cents' worth about politix.

* Regarding Drew Westen's book, some have criticized him for going beyond reporting on the data, and suggesting that politicians can use his research to their advantage, or, as one reviewer on Amazon put it, "actually encouraging political candidates to explicitly rely on fallacious red herring tactics in political debate."

**As for that controversial Supreme Court decision striking down part of a campaign financing reform law that no lesser a Republican than Senator John McCain co-sponsored, perhaps we need to, as a widely quoted AlterNet blogger put it, "rid ourselves of "the perverse notion of corporate personhood."

On January 28, syndicated newspaper columnist Clarence Page published a good piece on corporate personhood as it relates to human rights historically and currently. He notes:
If the populist Tea Party movement is truly worthy of its touted “populist” crusade against Wall Street and other powerful interests, it could find common ground with President Obama's call to curb runaway political spending — unless the Tea Party believers think corporations are people, too.
Good point, Mr. Page, but I think it's going to go over a lot of folks' heads.

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Katie said...

How can I become a follower of your blog? I can't find the "follow" gadget...

snarky ex-cultist,

Cosmic Connie said...

Hi, Katie, and welcome! I'm kind of gadget/widget-illiterate so I haven't added any special "follow" widgets anywhere (not intentionally, anyway :-)), but Blogger should have a "Follow" button on the upper left-hand side of the screen, on a silver band above the main body of the blog, immediately to the right of the blank search field. At least that's how it looks on my computer using my browser.

Eventually I plan to actually redesign this blog or go to Wordpress, because frankly, I am long past being tired of this old Blogger template. For now, though, I guess it's the words and pics that count. :-)

Thanks again for your interest, Katie, and I hope you enjoy your stay here. Snark on!

Anonymous said...

I think one of the most damaging elements to our democracy over the past year have been the adoring obamamaniacs who have not yet been able to wipe the drool off their chins and have an adult conversation around where our country is going, regardless of which color corporate tie is holding the reigns of this runaway horse.
One of my friends from europe noted that the problem with americans is that we personally identify with our government and politicians, which makes it tricky to have a reasonable, objective conversation about issues. Citizens of other countries do not personally identify in this way and so there is a different dialogue going on.
I recently had dinner with some friends and politics came up. Before stepping into the verbal ring, he announced that he personally holds mr. bo in high regard and respects him a great deal. So, if I were to make any comments of a negative nature toward mr. bo, this man has already made it clear that I would be insulting his feelings for this man. Of course, I refrained from the invite. But, you see, this is how we often, unconsciously, use our personal position to block any rational debate.
I love your blog by the way and I am not a republican by any means, but I am a person who feels held hostage to the pre-adolescent posturing of "go team, go!" You hit it dead on and it was quite interesting to see some science behind it.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you, Anon. I admit to getting a bit caught up in the Obama frenzy myself, but hopefully without drooling. :-) If nothing else, the 2008 presidential election did give me another excuse to link to something Leonard Cohen-ish.

Even in the aftermath of his election, however, I still had kind of a "wait-and-see" attitude. Admittedly, I was probably overly focused on the historical and symbolic aspects of the election...

But to me, Obama was the better choice, and I still think that is true. (I probably would have voted for Ron Paul, though, if he'd had half a chance.)

You are absolutely right about the inability of so many folks to have an adult conversation about these matters. Whenever my wonderful partner Ron gets involved in political conversations with certain right-wingish folks on a certain social medium, they end up attacking him, and some have even gone so far as to "de-friend" him. Ron, though assertive in his opinions, has always been respectful of the people with whom he is trying to converse. They rarely afford him the same courtesy, however, resorting instead to the name-calling, de-friending, etc., while continuing to congratulate themselves and each other on their own moral superiority.

Of course I've seen plenty of political name-calling and self-righteousness from the left too. Maybe some day the whole country will grow up. But I'm not holding my breath.

RevRon's Rants said...

"They rarely afford him the same courtesy, however, resorting instead to the name-calling,..."

Key word here, obviously, is courtesy. Oddly enough, "Obamamaniac" is one descriptor that hasn't been applied to me thus far. I've been honest about my support for the man, as well as my disappointment in his apparent naiveté in his dealings with the far right (or for that matter, the entire Republican party). Yet I still have every reason to believe that had the country chosen the other guy, we'd be in much worse shape than we are now. And for that attitude alone, some would deride me as a socialist, lefty, and other assorted monikers to which they've assigned a negative connotation.

What really irritates me is that so many on the fringes are doing a really poor job of presenting credible points, typically lapsing into juvenile banter, rather than actual analysis. To make matters worse, they frequently seem willing to act disrespectfully toward people who might otherwise be important in their lives, such as friends, family, etc. Such behavior is disappointing, at best.

While I often argued against the policies of the last administration, I didn't feel the need to assign some negative strawman status to an entire ideological group in order to support my arguments. I just felt that such an approach was not only a demonstration of laziness and/or ignorance, but a manifestation of the fear that one's ideology can't stand up to scrutiny.

Cosmic Connie said...

Good comment, Ron. I recall one recent discussion you had with someone whose political views differ from yours. This person -- who has said more than once that they don't like to talk about politics, but has made it clear that they just don't like hearing opposing political views -- had made some deliberately provocative comments about Obama. At one point they repeated a joke that implied a wish for his death. When you gently protested (and I made the mistake of joining in too), they indignantly replied that it was, after all, just a joke, and that they had listened to us bash Bush for eight years, so now the shoe is on the other foot, etc..

It's true that you and I and countless others criticized Bush and even had some fun at his expense (e.g., the "Bushisms" calendar we enjoyed every year during that administration). Yet even when we sometimes called him an idiot, we never said or implied that we wished him harm -- and, more importantly, we certainly didn't categorically deem his supporters or defenders idiots. And I honestly can't imagine you, Ron, ever "de-friending" someone merely because their political views differ from yours.

I imagine this sort of thing goes on a lot, unfortunately -- not just on social media, among families and friends, but also in the public arena. As my Anon commenter above said, and as Steve wrote in his own blog post from which I briefly quoted, politics in the US has become way too much of an "us versus them" game. Ultimately, we all lose.