In response to my post yesterday which argued that Democrats and Republicans are both vulnerable to what’s politely referred to as “motivated reasoning” – in other words, we’re all partisan hacks – some commenters objected. They pointed out that the actual study I was discussing found that conservatives, perhaps due to their rigid beliefs, were especially vulnerable to such cognitive flaws. Here’s a sample:
Imagine any other post like this generically. “A new study found something that supports my worldview! Haha. Except part of the conclusions undermine my worldview, so anecdotally I disagree with that and quote my personal experiences to prove I’m write”. That’s incredibly un-scientific.
Anyway, gasp, I’m a liberal, whatever. I acknowledge both liberals and conservatives can be irrational, but when there’s studies showing that one group is MORE irrational, then maybe we can cut the “pox on both your houses” malarkey for just a second.
That’s a perfectly valid point, but I’m sticking with my bipartisan view of partisanship. Consider this study, by Drew Westen. (It’s worth pointing out that Westen is a devout Democrat and even wrote a book that gives Democratic politicians advice on how to reach “the emotional brain.”) During the run-up to the 2004 election, Westen showed a group of 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans multiple statements from John Kerry and George Bush that were clearly contradictory. For example, the experimental subjects would read a quote from Bush praising the service of soldiers in the Iraq war and pledging “to provide the best care for all veterans.” Then, the subjects would learn that on the same day Bush made this speech, his Administration cut medical benefits for 164,000 veterans. Or they would a statement from Bush praising Ken Lay (the CEO of Enron) and then a statement explaining that Bush now avoids any mention of Lay. Kerry, meanwhile, was quoted making contradictory statements about his vote to authorize war in Iraq and his pledge to reform Social Security.
After being exposed to the political inconsistencies of both candidates, the subjects were asked to rate the level of contradiction on a scale of one to four, with four signaling a strong level of contradiction. Not surprisingly, the reactions of voters were largely determined by their partisan allegiances. Democrats were troubled by Bush’s inconsistent statements (they typically rated them a four), but found Kerry’s contradictions much less worrisome. Republicans responded in the opposite manner. They excused Bush’s gaffes but almost always found Kerry’s statements to be flagrantly incoherent.
The study was done in an fMRI machine, but there’s no need to get into the cortical substrate of motivated reasoning. Let’s just say that brushing aside a contradiction seems to activate the rewards mechanisms of the brain. (Self-delusion, in other words, feels really good.) My point here is that Westen observed no difference between liberals and conservatives. Here is a relevant quote from the paper:
Because the focus of this report is on partisans’ responses to threatening information about their candidate (rather than on differences in neural processing between Democrats and Republicans), and because Democrats’ neural and behavioral responses to Kerry contradictions resembled Republicans’ responses to Bush contradictions, we aggregated the data across parties.