The Scientific Activist

Since all of my Fantastical Fridays posts so far have been about chemistry or physics, I think it’s time for a change of pace. Here’s a post I wrote a couple of months ago about some more “political” science that had been in the news.

(24 January 2006) Now I have an excuse for my behavior the next time I get into a bitter political debate: I can’t help being defensive–it’s hardwired into me!

Those are the findings, at least, of a recent study led by psychologist Drew Westen, as reported by The New York Times today.

Using M.R.I. scanners, neuroscientists have now tracked what happens in the politically partisan brain when it tries to digest damning facts about favored candidates or criticisms of them. The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.

“Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here,” said Dr. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory and lead author of the study, to be presented Saturday at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif….

After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded. The “cold reasoning” regions of the cortex were relatively quiet.

Who would have thought that political dialogue could be emotionally charged and not based on fact or reason? Leading up to the 2004 election, I really believed that a draft dodger would be a better wartime president than a war hero. Totally rational.

Okay, maybe not, but I still want to believe that my political philosophy (and mine alone, naturally) is completely and totally rational. At the same time, these results would explain a lot, and, at the very least, maybe now I can truly appreciate conservative talk radio.

It gets better, though. In their own scientific ode to the GOP propaganda machine, the researchers reached their conclusions by studying what we learned in 2004 was the single greatest problem facing our nation: flip-flopping!

In 2004, the researchers recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession.

The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled. Moments later, the participants read a remark that showed the candidate reversing his position. The quotes were doctored for maximum effect but presented as factual.

That sounds oddly familiar. At least we know that if their careers in psychology don’t pan out, these researchers could have a promising future with the GOP.

Update (7 July 2006 8:40): After posting this, I was suprised to find that this story had already resurfaced in the blogosphere over the last few days, spurred by a recent Scientific American story. The Fly Bottle commented on the story, followed by Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Mixing Memory. Mixing Memory had previously commented on the story here and here.


  1. #1 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    I think Chris of Mixing Memory has already analyzed (read: demolished) that study.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    July 7, 2006

    His two posts on the study can be found here and here.

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