The Authoritarian Political Brain
September 3, 2007
Drew Westen's The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation helps explain the neuro-cognitive mechanisms involved in rationalizing away inconvenient truths, something we all do regardless of political affiliation. From the Introduction:
The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And all this seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.
The results show that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to “reason” to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints when they do.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons become active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, or unconscious, or some combination of the two, we don't know.
The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.
Nothing earth shattering there. But here's where it gets interesting (italics in the original):
But the political brain did something we didn't predict. Once partisans found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions shut off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating rewards circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap significantly with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix”, giving new meaning to the term political junkie.