Making humans aware of this phenomon will help them control it as will noting the behavior with comments like "You're being tribal."
From Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley, Prometheus Books 2008
The dorsalateral prefrontal cortex is deeply involved in the ability to thinkogically and rationally about various topics. People with slight problems in their dorsalateral prefrontal cortex appear to act normally; however, they may confidently, even arrogantly, draw bizzar and irrational conclusions. ... problems with the ventromedial cortex, much like problems with the dorsalateral prefrontal cortex, can lead to subtly irrational behavior.
A recent imaging study by psychologist Drew Weston and his colleagues at emory University provides firm support for the existence of emotional reasoning.15 Just prior to the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential ellections, two groups of subjects were recruited --fifteen ardent Democrats and fifteen ardent Republicans. Each was presented with conflictimg and seemingly damaging statements about their candidate as well as more neutral targets such as Tom Hanks (who, it appears is a likeable guy for people of all political persuasions). Unsurprisingly, when the participants were asked to draw a logical conclusion about a candidate from the other --"wrong"-- political party, the participants found a way to arrive at a conclusion that made the candidate look bad, even though logic should have mitigated the particular circumstances, and allowed them to reach a different conclusion. Here's where it gets interesting.
When this "emote control" began to occur, parts of the brain normally involved in reasoning were not activated. Instead, a constilation of activations occurred in the same areas of the brain where punishment, pain and negative emotions are experienced (that is in the left insula, lateral frontal cortex, and ventromedial pefrontal cortex). Once a way was found to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted, the neural punishment areas turned off, and the participant received a blast of activation in the circuits involving rewards --akin to the high an addict receives when getting his fix. In essence, the participants were not about to let facts get in the way of their hot-button decision-making and quick buzz of reward. "None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were consciously engaged," says Weston. "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." Interestingly, a more extreme version of this type of behavior may underlie border-line-like splitting.16
A completely different process occurred when a participant had no emotional investment at stake, as with statements concerning the "neutral" Tom Hanks. In this straightforward, rational process, only the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was activated-both Democrats and Republicans were swayed toward reaching the logical conclusion by the mitigating statement. Dorsolateral activation is, notably, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning as well as conscious effort to suppress emotion.
Ultimately, Westen and his colleagues believe that "emotionally biased reasoning leads to the 'stamping in' or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associating the participant's 'revisionist' account of the data with positive emotion or relief and elimination of distress. "The result is that partisian beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from the new data.'" Westen says. 17 Westen's remarkable study showed that nueral information processing related to what he terms "motivated reasoning" -- that is, political bias (in this case, at least) -- appears to be qualitatively differenent from reasoning when a person has no strong emotional stake in the conclusions to be reached.
The study is thus the first to describe the neural processes that underlie political judgment an decision making, as well as to describe processes involving emote control, psychological defense, confirmatory bias, and some form of cognitive dissonance. The significance of these findings ranges beyond the study of politics: "Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgements when they have a vested interest in how to interpret 'the facts,'" according to Westen.18
For example, well-intentioned, emotionally based concerns about the sanctity of human life have led to the United States withdrawing support for birth control programs to third world countries-despite the fact that many of those in favor of withdrawing support have never lived in those countries and have absolutely no idea of the magnitude or devastating effects of overpopulation there. Interestingly, people who are against such birth control programs, based on the sanctity of life, are often also firmly pro-death penalty. When I point out the inconsistency of being pro-death penalty but anti-birth control to these friends, they suddenly decide that not quite all human life is sacred. Then they change the subject.
Similar emotional reasoning has led kindhearted individuals to support "feel-good" programs such as busing, which seemed, on the face of it, to be an outstanding method to integrate school systems. Opponents of this program -- whatever their reasons -- were seen as racists, which meant that rational concerns about the program were discounted. 19 The result was that cities such as Detroit were devastated s the well-to-do moved to the suburbs, out of range of the mandated busing system. This worsened the segregation the busing had been designed to remedy. Similarly, a laudable desire to eliminate shabby housing, drug use and crime in poor areas let to "the projects," which were to house even more highly concentrated areas of drug use and crime. Such government-mandated programs as busing and the projects, often generated by emote control related to genuinely altruistic considerations, have wasted billions of taxpayers' dollars and let to a worsening of the very conditions they were meant to solve.
No one can claim to be truly unbiased. We all come at issues through our experiences and values, filtered by the emotional and cognitive processes of our hardwired neurological makeup. But if we socialize only with members of our own particular religious persuasion; if we work in an environment with only one-sided political input; if we read only Web sites or other news sources by writers who echo our views, then we strongly reinforce the emotional, rather than logical, basis for our beliefs. After all-- if "everyone" we know believes what we believe, we find an emotional reinforcement that helps close off consideration of other perspectives. (So much for the wisdom of crowds.)
Aren't there times when we as citizens should respond with healthy emotions, to fight for what we believe in, especially when we feel policies are causing people actual harm? Of course. But simply looking at the research results, one must conclude that people's first emotional responses about what's wrong, who is to blame, or how to proceed, particularly in relation to complex issues, must always --always-- be considered suspect. There is no simple algorithm for teasing rationality from emotion. An ardent Democrat or Republican, a dyed-in-the-wool communist union organizer, a young devote of Scientology, a Palestinian suicide bomber, or a KKK grand Kleagle could each read the above paragraphs and think, I'm not irrational -- it's those other idiots who can't see the obvious. But we all have pockets of irrationality, some large, some small, no matter if we are mathematicians who make our living doing proofs, wealthy philanthropists, or stay-at-home housewives.
If there is one thing that is important for us to know, it is that emote control allows our best traits --love, caring, loyalty and trust-- to be used as manipulative levers. Me-first Milosevic-like Machiavellians, with their convincing masks of integrity and charm, climb in every social hierarchy, schmooze in every community, saunter through every neighborhood. Whether we care about children, students, families, factory workers, fellow followers of Christ, brothers in Islam, blacks, whites, Mongolians, or Democratic or Republican political planks, the successfully sinister have no compunction about using our best intentions to further their own purposes --and themselves. By believing a heartbreaking speech about how important it is for us to be treated "fairly," or a tale of how we've been victimized, or a plea to put our hearts and minds toward helping others, we may be doing our tiny part to stoke the fires, and empower a Machiavellian. It is bitter balm indeed to learn how easily Machiavellians can use our own neurological quirks to foo1 us into actively working against the very ideals we hold most dear.
"people with damage to the dorsolateral and nearby ventromedial areas can have normal intelligence, but have no common sense -- they are unablr to make reasonable decisions."
"Subtle brain damage has also been affiliated with odd 'end justifies the means' behavior."
"The medial obito cortex appears to be particularly important in suppressing emotional memories that are irrevalent to the current situation."
"substance abse also appears to produce prefrontal dysfunction."
15. Drew Weston et al., "The Neural Basis of Motivated Reasoning: an fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Political Judgement during the U.S. Presidential Election of 2004," Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, no. 11 (2006): 1947-1958.
16. Bradley and Westen, "Psychodynamics."
17. Emory University Health Sciences Center, "Emory Study Lights p the Policical Brain," EurekAlert! January 24, 2006, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-01/euhs-es1012406.php (accessed July 2, 2006).
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