The Psychology of Campaign ’08

Excellent piece by neurologist Robert Burton in Salon on the psychology of politics.  Burton argues convincingly that support for ones candidate generally says more about the supporter than the candidate. In his book, On Being Certain, Burton puts several nails in the coffin of the myth of rational certainty, and this article does a nice job of applying the argument to the current political situation.  Here’s an excerpt:

Feelings of absolute certainty and utter conviction are not rational deliberate conclusions; they are involuntary mental sensations generated by the brain. Like other powerful mental states such as love, anger and fear, they are extraordinarily difficult to dislodge through rational arguments. Just as it’s nearly impossible to reason with someone who’s enraged and combative, refuting or diminishing one’s sense of certainty is extraordinarily difficult. Certainty is neither created by nor dispelled by reason.

Similarly, without access to objective evidence, we are terrible at determining whether a candidate is telling us the truth. Most large-scale psychological studies suggest that the average person is incapable of accurately predicting whether someone is lying. In most studies, our abilities to make such predictions, based on facial expressions and body language, are no greater than by chance alone — hardly a recommendation for choosing a presidential candidate based upon a gut feeling that he or she is honest.

Worse, our ability to assess political candidates is particularly questionable when we have any strong feeling about them. An oft-quoted fMRI studyby Emory psychologist Drew Westen illustrates how little conscious reason is involved in political decision-making.

Westen asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate negative (defamatory) information about their 2004 presidential choice. Areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex) normally engaged during reasoning failed to show increased activation. Instead, the limbic system — the center for emotional processing — lit up dramatically. According to Westen, both Republicans and Democrats “reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted” (cognitive dissonance).

In other words, we are as bad at judging ourselves as we are at judging others. Most cognitive scientists now believe that the majority of our thoughts originate in the areas of the brain inaccessible to conscious introspection. These beginnings of thoughts arrive in consciousness already colored with inherent bias. No two people see the world alike. Each of our perceptions is filtered through our genetic predispositions, inherent biologic differences and idiosyncratic life experiences. Your red is not my red. These differences extend to the very building blocks of thoughts; each of us will look at any given question from his own predispositions. Thinking may be as idiosyncratic as fingerprints.


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