The Frontal Cortex

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.


  1. #1 yogi-one
    April 18, 2008

    As the saying goes –

    “Being wrong never felt so right!”

    This kind of false certainty and simplistic mashing up of impressions to lump into conclusions are typical of the mind.

    You nailed it with this statement:
    “..minor acts of self-delusion are built into the brain at a very fundamental level. It feels good to be certain,…”

    Most people’s minds are – let’s face it – horribly insane. If you could record all your thoughts and brain imagery for one day you would see a huge mish-mash of distortions.

    The sane person is a person who realizes his mind is filled with distortions and therefore does not take his mind-creations (especially his self-perception) too seriously.

    If this all sounds like Zen talk about the mind, well…it is.

    Not being a scientist, I don’t feel qualified to talk about the brain per-se, but I can talk about the brain’s by-product called the mind.

  2. #2 tirta
    April 18, 2008

    re split brain experiment: it’s visual fields, not eyes. each hemisphere is only able to register stimuli in the opposite visual field, via both eyes.

  3. #3 shannon
    April 19, 2008

    interesting. next, i’d like to have you blog about the cognitive explanation for thinking that charles gibson is a worthless fucker.

  4. #4 MIke
    April 19, 2008

    My limbic system was calling George Stephanopoulos a wanker.

  5. #5 Owen Harris
    April 19, 2008

    Help me out… apply the same data (concerning the indecisiveness of our brain) to relationships, and spousal arguments.

  6. #6 mlisaoverdrive
    April 27, 2008

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  7. #7 db
    April 30, 2008

    My problem with studies and conclusions like these is that they’re so often universalized, producing a false equivalency: Not only is everyone equally prone to self-delusion, but all political candidates lie to an equal degree.

    I thought of a recent post on another scienceblog that linked to a site where you can test your ability to spot fake smiles. One obvious takeaway is that some people (not me, it turns out) are instinctively better at spotting fake smiles than others. For the sake of argument, let’s expand that to say that some people are better at recognizing when someone’s lying. And let’s say that those people gravitate toward the candidate who, consciously or not, they register as being more authentic — which one candidate has to be, to some degree.

    So their main criterion for choosing a candidate is authenticity, which they can spot with exceptional accuracy. That means that in every debate, it’s likely that their candidate will in fact have told fewer lies.

    I understand the value of the study in question, and the general truth it revealed. But the key word is general. No two candidates are ever honest or dishonest to the exact same degree, and perceiving a difference isn’t always mere self-delusion.

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