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Unread July 2nd, 2006, 04:02 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: The Political Brain - More Evidence of Evolved Psychology

Tom, As you know, my hypothesis is that behavior choice in animals, including humans, is an emotion driven process that attempts to produce a favorable emotional outcome. In humans, intellect provides another emotional input that's sometimes available for enhanced decison-making. I write this post, not to convince anyone or change their mind about this, but to clarify for myself some of the more important implications.

One of the human behaviors most susceptible to this emotion driven process is the opinions we form and hold about the world. We all love to believe that our own opinions are derived from the most rigorous logical and objective processes - and that those who don't share our opinions are just not very good thinkers.

From the article
Quote:
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," Westen is quoted as saying in an Emory University press release. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Interestingly, neural circuits engaged in rewarding selective behaviors were activated. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope 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," Westen said.

The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.
I interpret this as falling squarely within the predictions that my hypothesis makes regarding beliefs. I see beliefs as a primary source of the emotions we bring to bear on our conclusions and opinions about others and the world we observe. As we mature, our beliefs grow to form a set of mutually supporting opinions. We seldom expose our beliefs to logical examination - the results could be uncomfortable, negative emotional payback. Instead we expose them to our other beliefs - that we have already selected to support them - ensuring that good warm feeling of believing that we are alway right. The study vividly shows how this works in the brain. It also explains why we like to associate with those who share our beliefs.

By the time we are adults, when we are exposed to new information, our first instinct is to see if it fits in with our existing beliefs. If it does not, we may reject it out of hand. If asked, we will put our mind to work coming up with logical reasons why it could not possibly be true. If it does fit, we do the opposite. It feels so right. We have no trouble rationalizing reasons why it simply must be true.

However, some have worked hard to develop the ability to make rational judgements and think objectively about new information - to guard against emotion in that process. Good scientists strive to develop this ability - although not all scientists are so good at it.

The internet provides a wonderful lab to observe this in action. Almost all discussions about politics or philosophy (and psychology) are vivid illustrations of this. Most comments made in discussion groups like this are rationalizations for or against the beliefs that the commentors already hold in their minds. Some commentors are very intelligent and very skilled at making these rationalizations - disguising them as unbiased objective arguments.

Sometimes however, new information and new ideas are actually explored in online discussion. It's easy to see the difference between the two modes. In one, people question and offer observations - in the other, insults fly. Most often, and most unfortunately, the modes coexist - with some members trying to discuss human nature while others, whose beliefs may be threatened, throw insults at them.

There are differences between personalities in this online process. First, different persons have different areas of belief that they hold sacred. While one person may have no strong beliefs about God, for example, they may have strong partisan political beliefs - or vice versa. They may be quite capable of objective evaulation and comment in one of these areas but not the other.

Another difference that I suspect true is that different persons develop (or are genetically endowed, perhaps) with a greater chemical need to attach their beliefs to strong emotions. Some persons tend to go through life seeking those attachments.

Strong passions were certainly a net benefit for early humans who faced death every day from an uncaring nature and other humans. Those who carried the most passionate clan loyalties and the religious instincts that cemented them in place were most likely rewarded with better mate choices and more offspring - who then were likely to be passionate believers in all that their clan held sacred as well.

I suspect that many of the problems of the modern world are the result of this inherited bias for passion in our beliefs. I am not saying that these are always counter-productive for human-kind. It would be easy to make that generalization but that's not my purpose. Instead, I would propose that there is another side to behavior choice that could be nurtured in society, generally, and in children so that it will be available to them when needed. That is the passionless practice of reason.

It is easy to imagine that the first humans had little ability for this - and that the advance of civilization is pretty well marked by a gradually increasing ability to reason without the passion of irrational beliefs getting in the way. Still, I can see many examples where passion is not only necessary but where good outcomes would not be possible without it. When someone attacks us there is no choice but to passionately defend ourselves. At some point we must stop trying to reason and defend ourself - by whatever means necessary. The Second World War was a good example where we as a nation, at some point stopped anguishing over the alternatives and got about killing large numbers of Germans and Japanese.

But even then, our success was at least partially due to our ability to manage the war more intelligently and rationally - than passionately. The passion was needed - but measured and applied skillfully - which is difficult to do. IMO the most admirable achievements of humanity have been examples of the skillful combination of passion and reason. I think that a successful strategy for life on the personal level - and for societies - is to be capable of both passionate competition and reason - but to develop the wise ability to choose when and where to apply each, and in what proportions. I'm sure I could use a lot of improvement here.

We all deal with this functional duality in our minds every day in terms of competition in society. Passion is good for advertisers, for example. People simply do not buy things unless they are emotionally committed to the purchase. Millions of dollars are spent every day to make us more passionate and more competitive - usually about specific products - but the aggregate effect is a general elevated competitiveness (and social stress) that comes to permeate our lives.

There are areas of life where passion and competition has deadly serious consequences. Religion is capable of generating the most ferocious passions as any world history book will show. The tragedy of 9/11 and the current state of religious war in Iraq provides a vivid example that will affect our lives for many generations to come. It's OK to hold passions regarding one's beliefs. But when those passions become competitive, religion invariably requires the demeaning of others' religions - and eventually, if left unchecked, attacking or killing members of other faiths.

I believe it is not the nature of religion itself, but the nature of the minds in which it dwells - as to whether religious belief can be a force for good or destruction. The passion for belief is inherent in all of us from our evolutionary past. It seems, no matter how strong or weak it may be, that capacity can be amplified culturally or by upbringing - to completely consume some lives.

At the same time, passion for belief I suspect has become less necessary as our species evolved. What was vitally necessary for the survival of small superstitious bands 100,000 years ago, has become an enormous wholesale destroyer of DNA in the modern world. And the most passionate believers - as in WWII - don't always win.

Has cultural evolution so outpaced genetic evolution that we are destined to reduce humanity to a more appropriate smaller number of more primitive bands again - that can better accommodate the passions of our belief systems and use them to advantage?

Possibly the greatest advance in the organization of human civilization was the secular US constitution and Bill of Rights that recognized the inherent right of all to happiness and equal treatment under the law - and the all-important notion of separation of the affairs of church and state.

The duality in society that reveals our liberal and conservative mind-sets is an indicator of this evolution-in-progress - the bitter struggle of passionate beliefs vs. a live-and-let-live approach - that allows people to believe whatever they wish as long as they don't impose their beliefs on others. The conundrum hidden in that struggle is that it's hard to live-and-let-live when someone is trying to put you in prison for smoking pot or having an abortion or trying to have a loving relationship with someone of the same sex.

The passionate religionists will therefore always have their way. They will get their belief wars - because they need them, because the chemicals in their brains demand them. And those who would try to avoid them, will always be the first to suffer the consequences of those chemically induced passions.

Such is the human condition. And I guess we are fortunate to have members here who illustrate the chemical determinism of the human mind, in all its wonderful permutations, so very well - including me.

Margaret

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; July 2nd, 2006 at 04:22 PM.
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