Monday, January 30, 2006

Don’t confuse me with the facts

According to a recent study, there is virtually no chance whatsoever of changing someone’s political mind.

When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making, according to a new Emory University study. The research sheds light on why staunch Democrats and Republicans can hear the same information, but walk away with opposite conclusions.

Subjects’ brain activity was monitored when they were asked to evaluate information that was damaging to their preferred political candidate. The areas of the brain involved with emotions and conflict resolution were busy, but not the area of the brain that deals with reasoning. Subjects were then required to come to a conclusion in regard to the damaging information. They were able to reach conclusions satisfactory to themselves by ignoring the damaging information or by putting a spin on it that allowed them to see it in a positive way.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions -- essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted -- not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward -- similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged, says Westen.

The investigators hypothesize that emotionally biased reasoning leads to the "stamping in" or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associating the participant's "revisionist" account of the data with positive emotion or relief and elimination of distress. "The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen says.
In the end, if we have a belief that we’re not willing to let go of, it doesn’t matter how much contrary information we’re bombarded with, we’ll just ignore it. In other words, don’t confuse us with the facts.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that the same workings of the brain occur with any strongly held belief, not just politics.

So the question becomes why bother blogging about hot-potato issues like politics and religion and feminism, etc.? For the most part, we’re preaching to the converted. Maybe that’s really what it’s all about – finding a community of like-minded people. It’s something I enjoy the most about blogging; knowing that I’m not the only one who thinks the way that I do. There is also an undeniable entertainment value to blogs – they can be fun and interesting. And maybe, just maybe, there’s an outside chance that we can bring forth information that helps to sway an uncommitted person to our own point of view.

But converting a die-hard opponent to your position? Might as well be pissing in the wind.

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