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The Political Zombie Within

Don Hazen over at Alternet writes about an interesting story on new brain research, the results of which apparently bolster the importance of framing, a la George Lakoff. (Might you be new to Lakoff and his ideas on “framing”? Then by all means, please ignore this elephant.) Some scientist folks ran some human guinea pigs through MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging machines) so they could see what parts of the brain got active when confronted by certain situations…

… So Hazen reports that the NYTimes reports that the scientists report that people react differently to contradictory information when it is about politics compared to about most any other normal topic. Normally, when confronted with contradictory information, the logic parts of the brain go to work to figure out what’s what. But when confronted with information that is political in nature–like the fact that the politician that you’ve been supporting is a lying skeezer–the main brain reaction is emotional. What’s more, so they say, when the subject person responds along the lines of “I don’t believe you. Congressperson X has only the best intentions for the people in his heart,” the pleasure center of the brain lights up. In other words, that people (unconsciously) reward themselves for being loyal to their politics and their seeming political allies even in the face of information suggesting their loyalty may be misplaced.

Curious. And not all that surprising, is it? Most people are tribal, I think I can safely declare. Hazen is saying that this research shows why Lakoff’s ideas on framing are important–that if progressives and Democrats and other Swell Folks are going to achieve political success, they will have to understand the emotional aspects of politics and quit thinking that simply presenting the facts will lift the conservative political fog. Yes, very likely true. But don’t forget that it also acts as a useful reminder that left-oriented political partisans are also subject to the kind of emotional override found in the MRI study. How much loyalty to the party or ideology or whatever is too much? How strict of an Upstanding Citizen rule should we hold our politicians to, both the politicians we like and those we don’t; and how can we trust ourselves to fairly apply the rule?


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