Thursday, September 18, 2008

The political science of the future is neuroscience

Have you been wondering about why both presidential campaigns have been trafficing in dishonest allegations and pseudofacts? Why does such blatant lying work when both sides keep getting caught at it? Have you been wondering why Obama never accepted McCain's request to have ten town-hall face-offs?

Have you been wondering why American politics seems to be so insane?

Neuroscientists have been asking themselves these kind of questions too and there are all sorts of neuroscientific studies out there edging toward an explanation of how emotion and reason are activated by political stimuli. This article points to one difference between the brains of liberals and conservatives, the study reported on indicates that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It matches some stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to "feel our pain." You can see it in how most Hollywood and music stars tend to be liberal Democrats, those are people who make professional use of their amygdalas.

This little factoid might also help explain why Obama and McCain's negotiations over the townhall face-offs failed and why Obama ultimately prefers to just do his speeches solo. It's a little odd that Obama, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was editor of the Harvard Law Review, would not want to debate McCain who graduated with a low class rank (894 of 899) from the United States Naval Academy.

You'd think that Obama could wipe the floor with McCain considering their educational differences. However, it's more important to Obama to go after the heart (the amygdala), he knows how he got where he is. He knows he has performed best at massive, emotional rallies drawing tens of thousands of people. He knows that the reaction he got there is something he wasn't able to do during the debates during the primaries.

In every presidential campaign bargaining over debates happens and both sides try get a PR edge by seeming to offer more interaction yet protecting themselves and favoring their own strengths. McCain offered 10 town-hall debates, but Obama only wanted 1 so talks stalled over disagreements. They squabbled over format with McCain wanting an intimate town-hall format that would feature interaction with voters and would be more revealing than formal debates. It also would give him free media attention alongside the better-funded Obama. However, Obama clearly sacrificed that PR edge and selected to do minimal debating. McCain is now using that failure to claim that he’s ready to engage any time, any place and that Obama isn’t. The Obama camp seemed chicken. Why wouldn't they be, polling was favoring them at the time.

An aggressive McCain might have dominated the more cerebral and gentle Obama in such debates if they were too informal. And then there is Jonah Lehrer's blog post, "Why the Facts Don't Matter in Politics," which quotes a Washington Post article, "The Power of Political Misinformation," that seems to indicate that most of voters are just partisan hacks:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research.

While conservatives do seem to have more rigid, fact immune, views than liberals do, it should be noted that Obama has been caught using his own distortions. For example, this article shows how Barack Obama's charge that John McCain wants to tax the health insurance benefits that Americans buy through employers is a bit of distorted fear-mongering. Also, this article, shows how Obama was equating McCain with Limbaugh on the issue of immigration. McCain is less hostile to the plight of illegal immigrants than Rush Limbaugh.

You may not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals have such misinformation corrected, but Obama knows he can get away with it because McCain has already done worse when distorting Obama's record. You can't abandon Obama in favor of McCain to punish him for lying because then you'd only be endorsing a worse liar.

In the end voters on both sides think that they're thinking, but what they're really doing is rationalizing and ignoring facts so that they can explain decisions they've already made. Once you identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with your ideology. We see the same effect with any religion or world view. We all tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe.

Something like McCain's town-hall meetings might have undercut the cumulative effect of all these invented facts and ignored facts on both sides that explains why Republicans and Democrats seem to live in two different realities. However, merely knowing more about politics doesn't erase partisan bias because the world of politics is too complicated to hold in a single human brain. If a piece of information doesn't follow your party's talking points, then the information is conveniently ignored. Another example:

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990's to prove the same point. During the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What's interesting about this data is that so-called "high-information" voters - these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress - weren't better informed than "low-information" voters. (The sole exception was Republicans who are ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of political information. As Bartels notes, it's only among these people that "the pull of objective reality begins to become apparent.")

Clinton's deficit reduction didn't fit the "tax and spend liberal" stereotype so the majority of Republicans never managed to absord that fact.

This doesn't let Democrats off the hook, of course, while less rigid than Republicans, Democrats are also adept at ignoring facts according to the brain scans.

When people were asked, in 2004, to evaluate statements by Bush and Kerry, both Republicans and Democrats ignored information that could not rationally be discounted. That kind of psychological blind spot is going to require more than a lot of McCain's town-hall meetings. The intimate format with voters won't cut it. You'd really want experts to help cut through the spin.

Whatever fix we might imagine being enforced on the political process I would want to test it against the emerging neuroscientific political theories so that we can all benefit from an increased understanding of the neural processes involved in value-laden information processing. The goal would be to minimize distortions and the repression of inconvenient facts. I would like to see fact checking happening while the candidates debate. I would like us build on studies in consciousness, theory of mind, and social cognition to construct ways of dealing with neural response to political information and then use that information to force voters to deal with real facts.

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