What We Are Fighting Against

There is a fascinating article from the Asheville Citizen-Times today detailing how people, especially partisan political types, are not able to process information contrary to their opinions since their brains actually shut off when confronted with contrary facts. You should read the whole thing, but I have quoted some of the best material below.

Age of Reason must be over
I’ve always suspected most people shut their minds off when the topic of politics comes up.

But I never really thought that was literally what happens.

Wrong again.

Let me back up a little bit. Now, I know that in this day and age no matter what opinion you hold, with a little effort you can find someone out there on talk radio or the Internet or cable TV who will agree with you. And I know there’s a lot of very sophisticated political spin being generated around the clock, spin designed to massage the facts and put the prettiest face possible on even the worst of news. However, with a little more effort it’s not all that hard to get down to the basic facts of any story.

But it seems people either don’t make that effort or just don’t care. We all like to say we’re fair and open-minded, but when we get right down to it the numbers say otherwise.


MSNBC reported on a study last week that shows people really do turn their brains off when confronted with facts they don’t like.

They not only turn their brains off, they get a sort of pleasing stimulation from doing so, the kind of kick you might get from a cup of coffee or seeing a long-absent loved one.

Prior to the 2004 election, researchers offered political partisans info that was unflattering to their preferred candidate. Their brains were monitored as they tried to absorb it.

More accurately, their brains were monitored as the facts bounced right off.

Emory University’s director of clinical psychology, Drew Westen, was quoted on MSNBC as saying, “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. 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. … The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data.’’


With Aologies to Timothy Leary

The author says that "with a little more effort it's not all that hard to get down to the basic facts of any story." Change "any story" to "most stories" and I agree, but that's not really the hurdle for most of us. The problem isn't with facts but with comprehension. Global warming, Middle East politics, and health care reform are difficult issues, and finding out enough about these to have well-informed opinions is just plain hard. But we're a culture that values having opinions, and now it looks like our brains are wired to offer us a shortcut: turn on, tune in, and drop out.

NC's own Science and Politics has a good round-up of related science here.

Cognitive dissonance

We human beings don't want to deal with things that cause us pain. The radical right causes me pain. Therefore I don't want to deal with the radical right. I don't want to know what they think. I hate knowing what they do. It all hurts too too much.

Yet I have one or two moderate Republican colleagues who seem almost sane. Them I can take, most of the time. Unfortunately, they are voiceless in their own party, pushed and pulled into extremism by the Christian Coalition and the Imperialists.

Do we have any common interests with these moderates? Is there a middle ground? Can't we all be friends?

Are there any moderate Republicans still in North Carolina?


Anybody out there?