January 18, 2005 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Recent neuroscience research suggests that Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart as they seem (NYT). Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap? Or, are we conned by science and the media?
posted by semmi (16 comments total)
Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap?

Most likely not.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 11:12 AM on January 18, 2005

The jump from:

people rise through the ranks to run for higher office because they are able to evoke in others a powerful impulse to join their cause. Voters sense this attraction, and to keep from succumbing, they dredge up emotion-laden negative images as a counterweight.


We are not fighting over the future of the country; we are fighting for our team, like Red Sox and Yankee fans arguing over which club has the better catcher

Is mind-boggling.
posted by painquale at 11:18 AM on January 18, 2005

Partisanship and political leanings don't always make sense. If you study his positions, you'll find that Bill O'Reilly is actually to the left of John Kerry on many things.
He does however oppose the death penalty, but only because he does not believe it is harsh enough punishment

* Supports civil unions
* Supports gay marriage if voted for by citizens
* Supports gun control while believing in validity of the 2nd Amendment
* Opposes the criminalization of most forms of abortion (late-term abortion being the exception), though personally finds the practice morally questionable
See? Bill isn't such a bad guy. I don't actually disagree with him on these points, I just think he's an asshole.
posted by mullingitover at 11:25 AM on January 18, 2005

Yeah... My problem with this stuff is the science. It's a hell of a stretch to move from "more blood in the anterior gyrus" to "politics is an emotional conflict".

That's a little like leading from "well, he seems to have injured his left thumb" to "construction workers are drawn to release their anger at their fathers through physical labor.".

A friend of mine refers to this stuff as "Advanced Phrenology".
I agree, I must confess. I'm just waiting for the trepanning to begin.
posted by metaculpa at 11:35 AM on January 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

These patterns of brain activity, made visible on the f.M.R.I.'s, suggest that both Bush and Kerry voters were mentally battling their attraction to the other side.

Attraction to the other side, or to the other side's advertisements? Are advertisements the same as people? As ideas? What is the purpose of a political advertisement? Please see me after class.
posted by Hildago at 11:44 AM on January 18, 2005

both Bush and Kerry voters were mentally battling their attraction to the other side.

They got me, I'm a Big Bush Guy, but I'm just battling my attraction to him. Well, actually my attraction to Big Dick Cheney. I want to destroy government, social security, America's reputation, a woman's ability to choose, and the wall between church and state but I just can't come to terms with it in my mind and that's why I voted for Kerry. They figured it out.
posted by Arch Stanton at 11:56 AM on January 18, 2005

this is patently absurd and does a disservice to the very interesting and valuable work that is being done in neuroscience with fMRI.

we just don't understand the brain well enough to start making conclusions about behavior like this. but there is radical popular demand that 'neuroscience' is measurably revelatory to the lay community. people want gloss articles in middlebrow magazines explaining the newest research as to why we think what we think.

this journalist at least, and possibly the research team who is running the project, are pandering.
posted by milkman at 12:00 PM on January 18, 2005

God, this is just awful. Simplifying the neurophysiology somewhat is a caveat's equivicatory sidestep. There is no neurophysiology here.

For further evidence, not that the author is in fact a psychiatrist, and medically trained - but it not a neuroscientist himself. From the ground-up perspective that neuroscientists are trained in, the conclusions he's drawing are over the top. I suppose, from teh

Okay, I'll get back to poking at the brains of caterpillars now. Ground up indeed.

On preview: Yay milkman! We'll have a scientificmethodfilter yet.
posted by metaculpa at 12:09 PM on January 18, 2005

I'm just waiting for the trepanning to begin.

posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2005

Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart as they seem

Well, that part is correct.

Democrats vs Republicans

Reality-based vs "making reality"
Fact based vs cognitive dissonance
Spineless apologists vs rabid attack dogs

Just little differences ya' know?
posted by nofundy at 12:24 PM on January 18, 2005

Why do people keep doing this sort of political neuroscience research? Are we trying to invent a drug that cures liberalism?
posted by mek at 12:37 PM on January 18, 2005

Wow. That was ridiculously lame, unless all the Democrats in America are markedly different than I would be if I lived there.
posted by The God Complex at 12:42 PM on January 18, 2005

I think this is true. Two hundred years ago, "conservative" meant that you thought that kings were divine beings who have a right to tell everyone else what to do, that black people should live their lives as slaves, and that women should be chained to a bed and never taught to read, while "liberal" meant that you believed in egalitarianism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of property, et cetera. Now, "conservative" means the same thing as "liberal," only it means you disagree with a few of the government programs that the liberals like. I don't think I've ever met a conservative (here in the U.S., at least) who wouldn't endorse the Constitution, even if he didn't understand it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:32 PM on January 18, 2005

I had a conversation with a farmer here a few years ago, and although he and I did not know each other, after a few pleasantries he started shoveling out this rage at Clinton. I kept quiet, and offered the observation that Bush's military record didn't look so hot either, in a we're-all-damned-together kind of way.
An Air Force vet himself, he took that in and immediately calmed down.

I'm not very conservative, so I wonder: would a conservative have reacted differently? Would they have put their heads together and melded a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
posted by atchafalaya at 3:36 PM on January 18, 2005

no, it just shows us that media presentation is very good at getting people to subconsciously like people and ideas they don't consciously agree with
posted by pyramid termite at 3:47 PM on January 18, 2005

Simplifying the neurophysiology somewhat

...and giving it a highly contentious interpretation. As someone who does neuroimaging work on some of the same systems Freedman talks about, this reeks of pandering to the media, as milkman put it. Freedman identifies the ventromedial PFC with positive emotional reactions, but that's only half the story. The fact of the matter is the VMPFC plays a pretty general (and so far not well-understood) role in emotion and reward processing. While there's some evidence it might be particularly sensitive to positive preferences, there's work showing it represents aversive aspects of stimuli as well. In other words, Freedman could just have soon have said the research shows that deep down, people really hate the candidate they claim they support.

Similar problem for the 'emotional conflict' story. While it's true that anterior cingulate and dorsolateral PFC come on-line during emotional conflict (e.g., the "you really like it but you don't want to" story Freedman's selling), their role is really far more general. Basically, you see activation in these regions virtually any time there's any kind of effortful cognition going on. Here you could just as soon argue that these regions are coming on-line because people are more critical of the candidate they don't like, and spend more time actually thinking up arguments against them, as opposed to passively going with their gut reaction. Or that the presentation of disliked candidates constitutes more salient information than liked candidates (human beings are demonstrably more sensitive to negative than positive information). There are several other interpretations existing data might suggest. The "you secretly like Bush" account seems like one of the less plausible ones.

That said, news articles necessarily omit crucial information in order to make a story comprehensible and short. It's conceivable that there's a pile of results that support Freedman's story that just never made it into the article. For example, if the data showed that stated preference for the two candidates across subjects actually correlated in the predicted directions with activation in the above regions, that'd be more convincing. But that's a pretty big detail to leave out, so I incline to think that wasn't the case.
posted by heavy water at 5:30 PM on January 18, 2005

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