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Unread August 2nd, 2006, 04:57 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 271
Default Studies That Support Margi's Model of Behavior Choice

I have been trying to come up with something worthwhile in this direction since Carey challenged me to do this. One problem I have is that I don't have access to a University Library. This should change in a year when we plan to move back to Seattle for awhile.

For now, I'll just have to make do. Fortunately, studies are coming out every week or so that seem perfectly designed to support my hypothesis - that we make behavior decisions as the result of a weighing of emotional signals from various parts of our brains. Also, that our intellect only participates in these decisions occassionally - and then only according to the emotional weight we subconsciously give to any particular intellectual conclusion.

One prediction of my hypothesis that I have stated many times in these threads in various ways - is that we tend to believe what feels good to us, what resonates with our existing beliefs. We then use our intellect to justify that belief, to shore up credibility for that belief in our own minds, which reduces negative feelings associated with any doubts we might have.

Here's a WaPo report of such a study. I'll let you read it without my comments.


How the Brain Helps Partisans Admit No Gray

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; A02

President Bush came to Washington promising to be a uniter, but public
opinion polls show that apart from a burst of camaraderie after Sept.
11, 2001, America is more bitterly divided and partisan than ever.

We'll leave the pundits to pontificate on the politics, and instead
explore a more interesting phenomenon: People who see the world in black
and white rarely seem to take in information that could undermine their

Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not
evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they
are. (When people are asked whether they are biased, they say no. But
when asked whether they think other people are biased, they say yes.)
Partisans who watch presidential debates invariably think their guy won.
When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans
regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful,
reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like
they have cloth for brains.

Unvaryingly, partisans also believe that partisans on the other side are
far more ideologically extreme than they actually are, said Stanford
University psychologist Mark Lepper, who has studied how people watch
presidential debates.

Although it is satisfying to think that your side is right and the other
side consists of morons, the systematic errors that can be documented in
partisan perception suggest something deeper than deliberate tunnel
vision. (Last Monday, this space was devoted to the curious phenomenon
of the "hostile media effect," in which pro-Israeli and pro-Arab
partisans shown the same TV clips both came to the conclusion that the
news accounts were heavily biased in favor of the other side.) What
explains these distortions in perception?

In an experiment that pols may want to note closely, researchers
recently plopped 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats into scanners that
measure changes in brain-blood oxygenation. Such changes are thought to
be linked to increases or decreases in particular areas of brain

Each of the partisans was repeatedly shown images of President Bush and
2004 Democratic challenger John F. Kerry
<> .

When Republicans saw Kerry (or Democrats saw Bush) there was increased
activation in brain areas called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,
which is near the temple, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is in
the middle of the head. Both these regions are involved in regulating
emotions. (If you are eating an ice cream cone on a hot day and your ice
cream falls on the sidewalk and you get upset, these areas of your brain
remind you that it is only an ice cream, that not eating the ice cream
can help keep those pounds off, and similar rationalizations.) More
straightforwardly, Republicans and Democrats also showed activation in
two other brain areas involved in negative emotion, the insula and the
temporal pole. It makes perfect sense, of course, why partisans would
feel negatively about the candidate they dislike, but what explains the
activation of the cognitive regulatory system?

Turns out, rather than turning down their negative feelings as they
might do with the fallen ice cream, partisans turn up their negative
emotional response when they see a photo of the opposing candidate, said
Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of California at Los

In other words, without knowing it themselves, the partisans were
jealously guarding against anything that might lower their antagonism.
Turning up negative feelings, of course, is a good way to make sure your
antagonism stays strong and healthy.

"My feeling is, in the political process, people come to decisions early
on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about
their decision," Kaplan said.

Although it seems paradoxical that people would want to make themselves
feel poorly, Kaplan said partisans have a strong interest in feeling
poorly about the candidate they are not going to vote for as that
cements their belief that they are doing the right thing.

"Democrats looking at Bush may have some positive feelings about the
fact he is their leader, so the process of convincing yourself this is
someone you don't like when you intend not to vote for him makes sense,"
he said.

The result reflects a larger phenomenon in which people routinely
discount information that threatens their preexisting beliefs, said
Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, who has conducted brain-scan
experiments that show partisans swiftly spot hypocrisy and
inconsistencies -- but only in the opposing candidate.

When presented with evidence showing the flaws of their candidate, the
same brain regions that Kaplan studied lighted up -- only this time
partisans were unconsciously turning down feelings of aversion and

"The brain was trying to find a solution that would get rid of the
distress and absolve the candidate of doing something slimy," Westen
said. "They would twirl the emotional kaleidoscope until it gave them a
picture that was comfortable."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company


One particular statement that jumped out for me was this:
"My feeling is, in the political process, people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision," Kaplan said.
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