Nicholas Kristof has an excellent column on rationalizing, partisan affiliation and the Clinton/Obama race:
If you’re a Democrat, your candidate won in Wednesday night’s presidential debate — that was obvious, and most neutral observers would recognize that. But the other candidate issued appalling distortions, and the news commentary afterward was shamefully biased.
So you’re madder than ever at the other candidate. You may even be more likely to vote for John McCain if your candidate loses.
That prediction is based on psychological research that helps to explain the recriminations between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and the reasons why Senator McCain should be smiling as the Democratic campaign drags on.
To understand your feelings about Wednesday night’s debate, consider the Dartmouth-Princeton football game in 1951. That bitterly fought contest was the subject of a landmark study about how our biases shape our understanding of reality.
Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show.
What’s most interesting to me is how these minor acts of self-delusion are built into the brain at a very fundamental level. It feels good to be certain, to know for sure that your candidate is the best candidate. I’d argue that this desire is a dangerous side-effect of having so many competing brain areas inside the skull. After all, the default state of the brain is indecisive disagreement; our various mental parts are constantly insisting that the other parts are wrong. The amygdala might like McCain’s tough foreign policy, but the NAcc prefers Obama’s uplifting rhetoric. (Obviously, I’m making these details up, but you get the idea: the brain is one big argument.) The presence of certainty, however, imposes consensus onto this inner cacophony. We can now ignore those annoying fears and skeptical suspicions, those statistical outliers and inconvenient truths. Being certain means that we aren’t worried about being wrong. And that feels oh so nice.
This is most poignantly demonstrated by split-brain patients. (These patients have had their corpus-callosum severed, so that the two hemispheres of their brain are disconnected.) A typical experiment goes like this: different sets of pictures are flashed to each of the split-brain patient’s eyes. For example, the right eye might see a picture of a chicken claw and the left eye might see a picture of a snowy driveway. The patient is then shown a variety of images and asked to pick out the image that is most closely associated with what they have seen. In a tragicomic display of indecisiveness, the split-brain patient’s hands will point to two different objects. The right hand will point to a chicken (this matches the chicken claw that the left hemisphere witnessed), while the left hand will point to a shovel (the right hemisphere wants to shovel the snow.) The contradictory reactions of the patients reveal our own inner contradictions. The same brain has come up with two very different answers.
But something interesting happens when scientists ask split-brain patients to explain their inexplicable response: they manage to come up with an explanation. “Oh, that’s easy,” one patient said. “The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” Instead of admitting that his brain was hopelessly confused, the patient wove his confusion into a plausible story. In fact, the researchers found that when patients made especially ridiculous claims, they seemed even more confident than usual. It was a classic case of overcompensation.
Last night, as I watched the debate, I sounded an awful lot like those patients. I took my inner cognitive dissonance – my candidate wasn’t doing so well – and wove it into a feeling of certainty.