Sunday, September 16, 2007

Study Lights Up The Political Brain

Since we've been looking at political science a bit recently (here and here), perhaps a little more might not be out of order. One interesting thing about the studies discussed so far is that they rely largely on experimental techniques of classical psychology – subjects pushing buttons when presented with various stimuli, for example.

One wonders whether more modern techniques have been used, such as fMRI. The answer: a little, but not very much, apparently. The following seems to be part of what may be the most noteworthy effort:

Emory Study Lights Up The Political Brain
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.

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "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."

There probably isn't going to be much disagreement that political appeals in democracies (or most other governmental arrangements) are based a lot more on emotion than on reason and logic. It's hardly a new idea. However, what is intriguing is the possibility that fMRI and similar brain-scanning techniques can eventually reveal, for example, what kinds of emotional appeals work best with different personality types, when (if ever) rational mechanisms in the cortex become involved, and so forth.

Further information:

Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election – abstract of the research paper (sub. rqd. for full access)

Drew Westen – The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation – recent (6/2007) book


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Emory study sounds a bit suspicious. It's like that "prayer study" done at Columbia. Sure, the name is good, but the people were bogus.

I'm personally not sure how they would control for such an experiment? And what were they comparing the politicians brains to? There was no control variable, as far as they mention. This reminds me of the "brain studies" you find on "Smoking is now found to be in this part of the brain."

Just be careful what you read.

9/16/2007 06:44:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

This study appears to be explicitly about ordinary voters who happen to be partisan to one side or the other. It was not about politicians or undecided voters.

Certainly it would be interesting to study other types of people. This is just one study, and there should be many, many more. Would there have been differences with undecided voters? We just don't know. There could be many other variables too - age, sex, education, income, etc. etc.

The whole idea is to find out whether new research tools like fMRI can tell us more than we already know.

9/16/2007 12:34:00 PM  

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