This article appeared in today's AJC and truer words have rarely been spoken. Reading the newspapers and watching newscasts usually annoy me but, this was a rare breath of fresh air. The level of intelligent debate and discourse in this country has reached the gutter and, as I already suspected, we are not even listening to each other.
Political debate no place for facts
Bob Kemper - Staff
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Washington --- Frustrated that your neighbor refuses to see the fact that President Bush and the Republican Party have got it right? Aggravated that a co-worker won't respond to reason and acknowledge that Democrats are America's only hope?
Well, get used to it.
Neither you, your neighbor nor your co-worker thinks rationally when you debate and defend your political preferences, research by Emory University's Drew Westen shows.
"Whatever facts you present people don't make terribly much difference," Westen, a professor of psychology, said. "The more politically passionate they are, the less capable they are of learning anything from any new data that's presented to them."
And while many people have always assumed that people in the other party care nothing for the facts, Westen's research shows that both sides are equally guilty of ignoring facts that contradict their political choices. "Each party would like to believe that . . . they're the ones with the cognitive integrity, who look at things in a fair and balanced way and that it's the other side that's distorting," he said. "But actually we found just about [an] equality of distortion on both sides."
At the height of the 2004 presidential campaign, Westen took 30 highly partisan, right-handed men --- 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats --- and flashed positive and negative statements about their preferred candidate in front of them while observing their brain activity under a magnetic resonance imaging scanner.
When the men saw positive statements from or about their candidate --- President Bush for Republicans and Sen. John Kerry for Democrats --- the emotional parts of their brain lit up, Westen said. They were pleased. But when statements showing their candidates contradicting themselves were shown, the men became emotional.
The parts of their brains used to sort facts and make rational decisions --- which would have lit up if they were trying to sort out the contradiction intellectually --- showed no activity.
Instead, the men felt distressed or threatened. Their brain patterns showed they dealt with the conflict by rationalizing it away. And when they successfully dispatched the contradiction as meaningless, the part of their brain associated with rewards lit up, giving them "some kind of rush from it," Westen said.
"They are looking at their own candidate to explain away contradictions that they have no trouble seeing in the other candidate or in somebody who's neutral," he said.
Westen recently presented his findings at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif.
Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the University of Maryland's center for political communication and civic leadership, who was not part of Westen's study, said all politicians have been appealing more to emotion than intellect since television became the nation's dominant source of news. Speeches are shorter, sound bites are the rule and the images can convey as much information or more than the politician's words, he said.