By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
January 26, 2006
Scientists at Emory University studied a group of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months before the 2004 presidential election.
In each test, subjects were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate information that was threatening to their own candidate, while functional magnetic resonance imaging recorded what parts of their brain were active.
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory and lead author of the study.
"What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts," he added.
Once the partisans had come to conclusions that fit their underlying beliefs - essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted - the brain circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust were turned off, while the circuits involved in behavior reward were strongly activated, a process much like that seen when addicts get a dose of a drug, Westen said.
"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. It appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it," the researcher noted.
Westen and colleagues are scheduled to present their findings before the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology being held this weekend in Palm Springs, Calif.
Each subject was given 18 sets of information, six each regarding President Bush, Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and for a politically neutral male public figure, such as actor Tom Hanks. In each test, the subject read a statement from one of the candidates, then a second statement that documented a clear contradiction between the candidate's words and deeds, generally suggesting that the candidate was dishonest or pandering.
Then, each partisan was asked to consider the discrepancy and rate the extent that the candidate's words and deeds were contradictory. Finally, they were presented with another statement that might explain away the apparent contradiction, and asked to again consider the extent of contradiction.
Partisans denied the obvious contradictions in their own candidates, but in both their behavioral and brain-circuit responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions by the neutral individuals, such as Hanks. But Democrats responded to Kerry the way Republicans responded to Bush.
The researchers argue that the emotionally based reasoning leads to "stamping in" of defensive beliefs that allow them to feel good even when their reactions defy logic. "The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen said.
The study illustrates how emotional bias can affect decision-making in many realms of life beyond politics, the psychologist added. "Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret 'the facts'," Westen said.
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