Thursday, March 16, 2006

Are We Thinking with Our Brains? Or Our Emotions?


A friend alerted me to this column by Dick Meyer, Editorial Director of CBSNews.com. It discusses a recent study showing that the more partisan people are, the more they process political information with the emotional portions of their brains:

When 30 self-described partisans were presented with contradictory quotes about the candidates (President Bush supporting, then denouncing Ken Lay; Sen. John Kerry supporting, then denouncing a Social Security overhaul), it was the portions of the brain that process emotion, not rational thinking, that became active. "The thinking caps went off and the feeling caps went on," is how Westen put it to me.

Normally, Westen says, a brain faced with contradictory information will fire up the zones where reason or rational thought happens. The 30 partisans in this study were presented with contradictory quotes from Bush and Kerry, but also from Hank Aaron, Tom Hanks and the writer William Styron. They processed the information about the non-politicians with the reasoning centers of the brain. It was politics that short-circuited them. ("This is your brain; this is your brain on politics.")

This is a fascinating caution to us all. I have noticed the unreasoning hatred that otherwise fine, intelligent liberal friends and acquaintances have for George W. Bush. While contemplating that animus, I have also reflected on the Clinton years and the unreasoning hatred that otherwise intelligent conservatives had for that president. I personally found plenty to criticize about Clinton, and I have little respect for Clinton as a man, but I don't hate the guy. Still, I must concede that my response to him is often emotional.

If the conclusions of these researchers are correct, they go a long ways toward explaining what most of us consider to be the increasing polarization of the American electorate:

Brooks also found a disturbing level of what he calls "personal demonization" in 2004. Another prestigious, long-running survey, the American National Election Survey, collects public opinion data using what it calls "feeling thermometers"—for example, on a scale of zero to 100, zero being the sub-human low, how do you feel about members of Congress? Or conservatives? Or liberals? Scores below 20 are very rare. Brooks says, "No one gets zeroes, not even Hitler."

But in 2004, lots of people gave out zeroes. They were — surprise, surprise — self-described liberals and conservatives, and they gave zeroes out to their ideological enemies.

And, Meyer notes, people are getting more liberal and more conservative:

In 1972, even though the country was heated up over Nixon and Vietnam, only 4.9 percent described themselves as either extremely liberal or extremely conservative. That rose to 6.6 percent in 2004, an increase of about one-third. Though the baseline percentage is small, a 30 percent increase still potentially effects a couple of million votes.

Interestingly, the percentage of extreme liberals in these surveys grew far more than extreme conservatives, from 2.3 percent in '72 (Nixon) to 3.6 percent in '04 (Bush II).

Meyer concludes, "This is not evidence that America is becoming more polarized or that we are fighting a culture war." Really? Now I think Meyer is arguing with the emotional portion of his brain. Maybe he hopes the polarization of America is occurring, but it may well be.

I don't think this is a healthy trend, and I wonder what can be done to slow or reverse it. It may be one of those phenomena that ebb and flow with the tides of public opinion-- American politics in the latter 1790's were also very polarized and nasty.

The friend who told me about the Meyer article wouild probably say less partisanship is the answer. That's a reasonable suggestion, but I disagree. I think partisanship is fine; but people simply need to engage in a little more "reality checking" when they are thinking about politics.

Maybe bloggers can be a part of that. I'll give it a try here.

Update: Paul Mirengoff of Power Line has a different, more skeptical take. I still think the researchers are on to something.

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