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All Things Considered: March 2006

Think About it


January 15, 2008
By Jim Knisley


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With the federal election just behind us, it is perhaps appropriate
that scientists have uncovered what kind of thinking goes on in
politically partisan brains.

With the federal election just behind us, it is perhaps appropriate that scientists have uncovered what kind of thinking goes on in politically partisan brains.

The answer, according to a study by Emory University recently reported in the New York Times, is not much.

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The Times reports that scientists used M.R.I. scanners to track what happens in the brains of political partisans when they try to absorb criticism or disagreeable facts about their favourite politicians or parties.

The study looked at 30 men. Half were strong supporters of President Bush the other half strong supporters of John Kerry.

In 2004, each of the men was given two statements by one of the candidates. In the first statement, the candidate staked out a position on a subject and in the second statement they reversed that position.

In every case, the partisans harshly judged the man they opposed, and forgave their own candidate for his reversal. To determine why this was happening, the researchers studied the activity inside the men’s brains.

They found that when presented with uncomfortable information about their favoured candidate, the reasoning centres of the cerebral cortex (which carry the load when rational thought is being applied) essentially shut down and the emotional centres took over.

The Times story says: “The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centres when unwelcome information is being rejected.”

Dr. Drew Western, the author of the study, said: “Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of the brain to think about it, but that was not the case here.”

Dr. Western went on to say that the emotional instincts can be fought, but it requires “ruthless self reflection,” something usually lacking in political debate and discussion.
It also explains much about political rhetoric. The rhetoric is generally designed by partisans, approved by partisans, employed by partisans and often only impacts partisans. It is designed to generate emotional, not rational responses. The aim is to generate or reinforce fear, loathing and disgust.

Among partisans, it accomplishes these goals, but it comes at the expense of rational thought and often offends the uncommitted who are using the rational as opposed to emotional parts of their brains.

It also explains much of what can go on in government. Politicians tend to surround themselves with staunch supporters and depend on them for advice, and frequently for direction.

We will see that in coming weeks when those who worked for the outgoing Liberal government leave Ottawa and those who will work for the incoming Conservative government move in.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of those arriving will be partisan Conservatives. They have worked long and hard for the party and it is their turn.

However, truly wise politicians looking to develop the most thoughtful and effective policies would not surround themselves with partisans. They would go out of their way to find highly qualified individuals without political allegiance. They would look for people who, as they say, are willing “to speak truth to power.”

It’s unlikely politicians would have to shed their core beliefs or much alter what they hope to accomplish. But it could prevent them from making monumentally stupid mistakes.

For example, it is entirely possible that if a rational, nonpartisan brain had been in the room when the Chrétien government decided to proceed with policies that resulted in the sponsorship scandal they might have been told to rethink their tactics.

Instead of thought, his government got emotional acceptance of a program that has rightly turned into a scandal.

One would hope that in the new government, when someone says “think about it,” there are a few people in the room who can actually do that. 


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