Sunday, January 29, 2006

Study Reveals the Obvious

The findings of an Emory University political bias study are interesting, but sadly not surprising.
Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects' brains were monitored while they pondered.

Was such a study really necessary? Presumably, the participants were self-identified “staunch party members”; or at least the rough equivalent thereof, which is quite telling. But anyway…about those findings:
"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen [director of clinical psychology] said. "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."

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

The tests involved pairs of statements by the candidates, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, that clearly contradicted each other. The test subjects were asked to consider and rate the discrepancy. Then they were presented with another statement that might explain away the contradiction. The scenario was repeated several times for each candidate.

The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.
Mental laziness may very well be intrinsic to the human brain; but it can, and should, be mitigated. Can challenging one’s pet beliefs be uncomfortable? Yes. Is introspection a chore? Yes, initially, but consider the reward versus the alternative: the brain is reduced to minimal operating status, the rational faculty atrophies, healthy skepticism is diminished and more.

Then there’s the inimitable Apesnake, who makes some astute observations:
I wonder if this study could be done with people who have received some actual instruction about reasoning, like what an appeal to emotion is and compare them to those who had not. Is there maybe a glimmer of activity in the reasoning sites? There are some people who are able to see (and are disgusted by) bad reasoning and false facts being used by people who's positions we agree with. It would be interesting to see what is going on when we are exposed to that situation. Well, you would need to find a large group of people who had been instructed in reason so the study will never be done.