Tag Archives: partisans

The Neuroscience Behind Partisanship

I’m very much enjoying Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain. It’s about how the brain forms beliefs, why people hold on to their beliefs so strongly, and why people believe in weird things like ghosts and conspiracy theories.

On p. 260, Shermer quotes from a study (pdf) by Drew Westen, et al, where his team ran fMRI scans on the brains of political partisans to see what parts of their brains were firing when engaged in political dispute:

We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up… Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidascope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.

There you have it: scientific proof that partisans aren’t quite right in the head.

The Partisan Mind at its Finest

I don’t watch cable news. Sometimes people ask me why. This video explains as well as anything:

MSNBC’s Palin obsession is puzzling at first glance. There is no way she could win a presidential primary, let alone a general election. She polls poorly with independents, and not even everyone in her own party supports her. She is irrelevant to the 2012 election.

Why pay her any mind, then? Because she’s polarizing. That’s good for ratings. Palin has become a two minutes hate figure right out of Orwell.  Hence the video above. We must find something, anything, that will make this person look bad! And thus, to feel good about ourselves. It’s as base an impulse as there is.

The partisan mind is not rational. It suffers from clouded judgment. That’s been my hunch for some time. And it turns out that neurological research is bearing this out.

The left-right political dichotomy is obsolete and inaccurate. I propose replacing it with a liberal-illiberal split; conservatives and progressives might be surprised to find themselves firmly allied on the illiberal side.

Maybe then Sarah Palin’s 15 minutes of fame can finally, mercifully, end.

Useful Partisans

Partisans are strange creatures. They can support a policy for years when their guys are in charge, then oppose it in the blink of an eye when the other team takes power. Ross Douthat takes a thoughtful look inside the partisan mind in today’s New York Times:

[M]illions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, so long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano (as the Drudge Report calls her) rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.

He also identifies a bright side to partisanship that I hadn’t thought of:

But for the country as a whole, partisanship does have one modest virtue. It guarantees that even when there’s an elite consensus behind whatever the ruling party wants to do (whether it’s invading Iraq or passing Obamacare), there will always be a reasonably passionate opposition as well. Given how much authority is concentrated in Washington, especially in the executive branch, even a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all.

Good point.

This Guy Gets It

Today’s quotation of the day from The New York Times daily email:

“I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I want the Democrats out of my pocket and Republicans out of my bedroom. The one word I would use for what’s going on in Washington is embarrassing.”

RON VAUGHN, who provides health insurance to his 60 employees at Argonaut Wine and Liquor in Denver.