The Frontal Cortex

Why I Don’t Blog About Politics

Sometimes, I feel like the only journalist/blogger in New Hampshire who isn’t writing about politics. My street is littered with campaign signs, from Kucinich to Huckabee, that have been stuck haphazardly into the snow. My recycling bin is full of glossy campaign mailers. In the last 48 hours, Obama has appeared at the local high school and Richardson showed up at my favorite pub. McCain practically lives in my zipcode.

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of attending numerous political events. (And I say this as someone who grew up in LA and lived in NYC and never, ever saw a presidential candidate. So I know that New Hampshire citizens are privileged, at least in the civic sense.) I read way too many political blogs and waste too much time studying the statistical details of the latest tracking polls. I spent my Saturday night watching the debates.

So I’m clearly a political person, with pretty generic left-of-center partisan beliefs. And yet, I’m really not interested in blogging about politics. A big reason, of course, is the internet version of comparative advantage: if you want to read about politics, I assume you’ll get your fill reading real political blogs, from real political reporters. My little niche is neuroscience.

But there’s a more important reason why I shy away from writing about politics. And that’s because so much political writing, including the blogging I would do, suffers from a basic misunderstanding of the mind. To better understand what I’m referring to, it’s worth considering this witty little scenario, which was invented by Jonathan Haidt:

Julie and Mark are siblings vacationing together in the South of France. One night, after a lovely day spent exploring the local countryside, they share a delicious dinner and few bottles of red wine. One thing leads to another and Julie and Mark decide to have sex. Although she’s on the pill, Mark uses a condom just in case. They enjoy themselves very much, but decide not to have sex again. The siblings promise to keep the one night affair secret and discover, over time, that having sex has brought them even closer together. Did Julie and Mark do something wrong?

If you’re like most people, your first reaction is that the brother and sister committed a grave sin. What they did was very wrong. When Haidt asks people to explain their harsh moral judgment, the most common reasons given are the risk of having kids with genetic abnormalities and the possibility that sex will damage the sibling relationship. At this point, Haidt politely points out that Mark and Julie used two types of birth control and that having sex actually improved their relationship. But the facts of the case don’t matter. Even when their arguments are disproved, people still cling to the belief that having sex with your brother or sister is somehow immoral.

According to Haidt, this simple story about sibling sex illuminates the two separate processes at work when we make moral decisions. The emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is wrong and what is right. In the case of Julie and Mark, it refuses to believe that having sex with a sibling is morally permissible, no matter how many forms of birth control are used. The conscious brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides us with reasons, but those reasons all come after the fact. “Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,” writes Haidt. “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate…Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”

My hypothesis is that political judgments are like moral judgments. When you see a candidate, you experience a visceral, instinctive, inexplicable response. Your brain generates an emotion – Obama is uplifting, Hillary is commanding, McCain is honorable, etc. – and then the rest of your brain goes about explaining your emotion. The inner interpreter gathers together bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make our automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a fa├žade, an elaborate self-delusion.

My problem with so much political punditry is that it doesn’t admit that it’s irrational. After the debates, for example, an endless series of “experts” was trotted out before the cameras. Each of them sounded very confident of their assessments, announcing that Hillary’s anger had gotten out of control, or that she successfully drew sharp contrasts with Obama and Edwards, etc. Instead of qualifying their sentences with “I feel…”, the pundits talked as if they were describing simple, objective facts. But, of course, they weren’t. They were searching for reasons to explain an essentially unreasonable mental process. So much campaign reporting, especially at the national level, and especially on television, consists of this kind of hokum masquerading as genuine insight.

Obviously, there are ways to talk about politics that get at something more interesting than the emotional opinions of Chris Matthews, Joe Klein or Tim Russert. We could, for example, talk about actual issues. After the Saturday night debate, I kept on waiting for someone, anyone, to spend a moment or two talking about what was actually said during the debate. Do terrorism experts really estimate the chance of nuclear explosion in an American city during the next ten years at 33 percent? (If so: holy shit.) What are some of the policy implications of a Huckabee national sales tax? How many small business owners actually make more than $250,000 a year? (The Democrats were asked if their plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts would hurt “entrepreneurs”.) Would a mandate actually lower health care costs? My point is that there are genuine facts to discuss. But coming up with answers that depend on the facts, of course, would require a little research. It’s so much easier to just spin your feelings.


  1. #1 John
    January 7, 2008

    well said….

  2. #2 Nic
    January 7, 2008

    I’ve seen a lot of chatter about the Richardson-Obama-Clinton discussion about the costs of a carbon emissions cap and trade scheme. (Richardson said there would be none, Obama said there would of course be costs, Clinton dodged.) I’ve also heard a lot of discussion about health care mandates. I suspect that the problem is not pundits’ (and voters’) emotive way of evaluating candidates’ body language and intonation. Instead, I think the problem is that the penalty for proposing a bad policy or bungling a fact is high, but the reward for proposing a good policy or correctly stating a fact is low. The risk-averse strategy is to avoid saying anything without appearing to be saying nothing.

  3. #3 amybuilds
    January 7, 2008

    I grew up being told that it wasn’t polite to discuss politics or religion, that these were private matters. I still have trouble from time to time actually discussing either – it’s hard to ignore how you were raised. The underlying reason I was told not to discuss these things was fear of persecution. My grandparents lived in times of political and religious persecution, if you didn’t broadcast your position it kept you safer.

    I think your rationale can also be applied to religious beliefs. We believe what we believe and all the justification is just posturing that tries to support a gut emotion.

    I’m all for facts in politics, wish I could find some.

  4. #4 Rachael
    January 7, 2008

    >My hypothesis is that political judgments are like moral judgments.

    I think political decisions, although very emotionally/morally motivated, are not quite as extreme as taboos. Taboos are so ingrained in our being that they touch on feelings of disgust. And there is an argument to be made that disgust is a particularly strong evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us safe from things like feces, decomposing flesh, or even less obvious biological ills such as incest.

    >My problem with so much political punditry is that it doesn’t admit that it’s irrational.

    Totally agreed. I used to really enjoy punditry, but now most political debate is just kind of exhausting. People do sometimes change their opinions, but usually it’s at a younger age, or, it involves themselves more than the people around them.

  5. #5 Derek James
    January 7, 2008

    I just responded to this post over at my own blog. I think your reasoning is a bit of a cop-out. You say:

    The inner interpreter gathers together bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make our automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a facade, an elaborate self-delusion.

    And the title of your post is “Why I Don’t Blog About Politics”. Do you think that you yourself are incapable of making reasonable, supported judgments about political issues? Is this why you don’t blog about an issue that you admit you find very interesting and important?

  6. #6 tim
    January 7, 2008

    I am relived that some blogs don’t venture into politics. For the simple reason that the comment section typically degenerates into ad hoc attacks. It doesn’t matter if the blogger in question is “reasonable and has supported judgments” – those that make comments are guaranteed not to.

  7. #7 maya
    January 7, 2008

    i am on your side when it comes to public discussion (in writing especially) of politics, and thanks for this post, i agree; i never really thought about it from that specific angle, though i have often felt that sense of people generally just deciding who they like, and making arguments after the fact.

    also, in response to Rachael, i would venture that for some people, political affiliations are almost taboos. though both my parents are capable of engaging in intelligent, informed, and civil debate about politics, the truth is i have never even considered voting for a Republican. i’m one of those people who is really bad at lying to my parents, and i don’t think i could face them if i ever decided to vote for a Republican. it’s a deeply ingrained tradition, probably as important and essential to my upbringing as religion. (we stopped going to church after the boston pedophilia scandal, but haven’t stopped watching the debates).

    just food for thought…

  8. #8 jay french
    January 7, 2008

    It may be useful and informative to blog about issues, but when the subject becomes politics, irrationality enters. Discussing “politics” injects an evaluation of how the issues are connected to individuals or groups. Several posts preceding in this string reflect the recognition that there undercurrents that inform our political judgments that we are not prepared to discuss candidly. And the pundits who may be grinding a very political axe with supposed statements of “fact” about the candidates may be doing no more than trolling in an attempt to hook various of those irrationalities.

    For example, I know that I harbor a vague but abiding distrust of politicians who wear religion on their sleeve and suggest that they might seek guidance on secular issues from prayer or the Bible. Yet I know that there are many admirable leaders in our history who did just that (e.g., Lincoln). Neither am I desirous of engaging in an open dialog to explore and perhaps unravel the basis of that distrust.

    Jonah’s post about the siblings who “consummated” their relationship hits the nail square on. There is something inside me that can’t accommodate that behavior, and I don’t want to discuss it!

  9. #9 Hayden Tompkins
    January 8, 2008

    I did see one pundit who made sense. It was some lady talking about Hillary’s tearing up. Essentially, she said that pundits reacted about Hillary’s emotional response had to do with how they already felt about Hillary Clinton.

  10. #10 Hayden Tompkins
    January 8, 2008


  11. #11 Bill LaLonde
    January 9, 2008

    “But the facts of the case don’t matter. Even when their arguments are disproved, people still cling to the belief that having sex with your brother or sister is somehow immoral.”

    Because there was reason to believe, before the act was committed, that it would (or could) have negative consequences (there are people that get pregnant while on the pill and using condoms, and the capacity for emotional damage was arguably large, regardless of whether it occurred). Just because those consequences didn’t occur doesn’t mean the act is suddenly moral (unless you are a strict consequentialist). Take a parallel example:

    A man fires a gun into a crowd of people. The bullet doesn’t strike anybody. So does that mean the act was perfectly acceptable, was moral? I.e., are bad shots more moral than marksmen? Because that’s what Haidt’s reasoning seems to be saying.

    I realize that the point is that people were unable to justify their reaction in the face of arguments, but that doesn’t imply that the moral decision wasn’t made rationally, just subconsciously.

  12. #12 Vnend
    January 9, 2008

    The problem with declaring ‘political decisions are emotional, not rational’ is two-fold: first, it makes huge assumptions about the nature of emotion and reason and how we think. Two, it gives in to what has become the status quo with regard to political discussion/reporting: sound bites and appearance trump ability to reason and persuade/debate/argue.

    The first problem is a common one, and it points to our vast lack of knowledge of how we feel and reason. But it is also demonstrably false; anyone who has ever dealt with emotional issues in analysis knows that using reason to approach and understand an emotion can be an effective, if difficult, way to address a problem. The anecdote you included shows emotions affecting reason, something we all see (and experience) every day.

    Which brings us to the second problem. There are people rationally considering of emotion in campaigns and in general, but it is done ‘behind the scenes’, by the folks creating the ads and the sound bites, seldom out in the public eye. It is usually done manipulatively, with the desire that the actual thought behind it is hidden. If we saw how the trick was done, we might not believe it.

    But the heart of politics, and in particular, political rhetoric, is both rational and emotional. The great orators and debaters used both; logically using emotionally weighted words to add impact to their arguments. Appealing to emotions while using logic and using logic to sway emotions.

    We do not see that done much these days.

    I have spoken with people who have met Obama. My wife met President Clinton when she played at the White House one St. Patrick’s Day. (She plays harp, and claims that all the other harpers already gigs.) The consistent thing in reports on both is the tremendous personal presence they have. When they are talking with you, parties report, you *know* you have their attention and that they are thinking about the subject at hand. This, I suspect, is what makes a good politician able to persuade people; to make alliances and broker compromises. The stuff that makes politics interesting and challenging. The use of their emotional impact to make their arguments more forceful.

    There is a big issue, the difference in perception that adding visuals to the message makes emotionally can be huge. (Kennedy vs Nixon, 1960, when TV viewers thought that Kennedy had won, while radio listeners were more likely to think that it was a draw or a Nixon win) But a more important question is, I think, the one of Why. Both why emotional responses are considered inherently inferior and why ‘politics’ seems to so often invoke a negative emotional reaction…

  13. #13 fussball bundesliga
    March 3, 2009

    Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

  14. #14 lieben
    March 5, 2009

    Interessante Informationen.

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