Matt Yglesias makes an important psychological point about political debates:
My read of what I see in these debates is so heavily colored by ex ante beliefs and information that it’s hard for the debate to change anything. During the first 100 days question, for example, John Edwards gave his spiel about “restoring American leadership” which Hillary Clinton followed up by straightforwardly saying that bringing the troops home from Iraq would be Priority Number 1 in a Clinton administration. In a vacuum, that from Clinton would have impressed me a great deal. But in the real world it didn’t.
That’s because Yglesias, like virtually all political observers, views the candidates through the prism of his prior beliefs. Thanks to the wonders of fMRI, we can now see the neural source of this irrational partisanship. Drew Weston, a psychologist at Emory University, imaged the brains of ordinary voters during the run-up to the 2004 election. He showed the voters statements from John Kerry and George Bush that clearly contradicted each other. For example, the experimental subjects would read a quote from Bush praising the service of soldiers in the Iraq war, pledging “to provide the best care for anybody who is willing to put their life in harm’s way for our country.” Then, the subjects would learn that, on the same day Bush made this speech, his Administration cut medical benefits for 164,000 veterans.
After being exposed to the political contradictions made by both candidates, the subjects were asked to rate the level of contradiction on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 signaling a strong level of contradiction. Not surprisingly, the reactions of voters were strongly determined by their partisan allegiances. Democrats typically rated Bush’s inconsistent statements a 4 on the four-point scale. However, they found Kerry’s contradictions much less troubling: his ratings averaged around 2. Republicans responded to Bush in a similar manner, and almost always found Kerry’s statements much more troubling.
Westen could watch as the brains of Democrats and Republicans tried to maintain their certainty in the face of conflicting evidence. The party faithful began their thought process by recruiting brain regions responsible for controlling their emotional reactions and suppressing internal conflict. The voters were literally censoring their cognitive dissonance. Instead of using their reasoning faculties to logically analyze the facts, they use reason to buttress their opinions. Once they arrived at a favorable (and irrational) interpretation of the evidence – it supported their prior convictions – they experienced a subtle rush of pleasurable emotion, as their internal reward circuits were activated. Self-delusion felt good. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want,” Westen says, “and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”
Here’s the paper. And here’s Westen’s new book, which is quite good. Westen argues that Democrats adhere to a “dispassionate” model of voter psychology, which leads them to make fundamental political mistakes. He lays out an agenda and some rhetorical practices that will allow liberals to better tap into the persuasive powers of the amygdala.