Mixing Memory

The Westen et al. study on the motivated reasoning of political partisons has made its way back into the blogosphere, first with Will Wilkerson, and now fellow Science Blogger Ed Brayton. I posted on the study, and hot cognition/motivated reasoning in general back in March, when the study was first noticed by the press and bloggers. I’m not exactly pleased to see the study popping up again, because it was so massively misinterpreted last time, with people making claims to the effect that the study demonstrated the impossibility of political persuasion. One reporter, writing about the paper for CBS News, even wrote something so horrendously absurd that i’ve since used it as the best example of bad science reporting ever:

It’¬ís one thing to know that some people get obnoxious during political arguments; it’s another thing to see that 30 adult men who read candidates’ quotes while strapped down in MRI machines didn’t even fire up the thinking parts of their brains.

Every time I read that, the phrase “didn’t even fire up the thinking parts of their brain” leaves me nauseated.

Anyway, when reading the posts, or if you are interested, the study (go here to requestion a copy from Westen), keep a few things in mind:

  1. Partisans are using the cold cognition system (what the reporter meant, I assume, when he wrote “the thinking parts of their brains”). However, the brain areas associated with this system don’t show an increase in activation when the partisans encounter contradictions in the statements of their preferred candidates. What this means, nobody knows. One might expect an increase in activation in these regions when a contradiction is encountered, because presumably resolving contradictions requires more effort, and more effort implies increased activation. But increased effort might not result in increased activation. Like I said, we don’t know.
  2. The study doesn’t tell us that political persuasion is impossible. Political persuasion is possible, it’s just difficult, because emotions and biases get in the way.
  3. Motivated reasoning isn’t just a political phenomenon. It’s likely our default mode of reasoning. So, the partisans in the Westen et al. study are just being human.
  4. To expand on #3, if you get the notion in your head that you’re different from those partisans, and that cold, fact and argument-based reasoning is your default mode, then you’re either wrong or not human.