Politics and the Brain

A recent study came out which you can read here. Basically, the recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias. In other words, we first come up with an opinion (for example, being Democrat or Republican) and then we try to find evidence for the already existing belief. Here’s the quote from the article:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men–half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats–were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

Indeed, the part of the brain that lights up has nothing to do with rationality and instead deals with emotions. So we are political animals not because of some rational argument, but because of some emotional connection.

So what do we do? What does the article recommend? Interestingly enough, it recommends politicians having a peer-review system where politicians check up on each other and perhaps even make opposite cases. Seems like skepticism gets away from this confirmation bias.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Politics and the Brain

  1. Killer J says:

    For sure man, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. It’s anxiety inducing to be confronted with information that doesn’t fit within one’s cognitive schema (like Republicans/Democrats are always right). Much easier to conveniently bypass and ignore such information and look for information that confirms the pathway laid out in our brain map. fuck.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Here’s an article about the physiological differences between liberals and conservatives at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/sci;321/5896/1667

    From the abstract:

    In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

  3. Killer J says:

    I don’t want to subscribe to the site. Can you post the full text here? I want to know what the stimuli were.

  4. shaunmiller says:

    Per request, you can get the article by clicking here.

    Also, to clarify, the authors aren’t saying this explains poltical differences, it suggests a possible reason.

  5. Killer J says:

    Man, that was really interesting. I like the amygdala explanation best, as it makes the most sense to me from a genetic standpoint. Startle response would not likely be socially constructed, as the article mentions, because of the sheer volume of positive and negative reinforcement that would have to take place.

    I’m working on my own conclusion to follow up. Maybe something along the lines of conservatives being the ‘hunters’ and liberals being the ‘gatherers.’ haha, you Gathering Sissy.

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