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.” Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.
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.
“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Westen. “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.”
The study has potentially wide implications, from politics to business, and demonstrates that emotional bias can play a strong role in decision-making, Westen says. “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’ ” Westen says.
Coauthors of the study include Pavel Blagov and Stephan Hamann of the Emory Department of Psychology, and Keith Harenski and Clint Kilts of the Emory Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.