January 25, 2006
Political Partisans Addicted To Irrational Defense Of Their Tribes

Partisan defenders of irrational positions get rewarded by their brains in the same way drug addicts get rewarded by addictive drugs.

When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making, according to a new Emory University study. The research sheds light on why staunch Democrats and Republicans can hear the same information, but walk away with opposite conclusions.

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions -- essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted -- not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward -- similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," says Westen. "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."

The feeling of partisan loyalty is an obstacle to rational thought. Abandon your partisan loyalties and the effect will be to boost your ability to understand political events.

Also, distrust the most partisan commentators who defend the leaders of their factions. Their odds of making sense and being correct are lower than for less partisan commentators.

Addicts of partisanship need treatments that will prevent them from getting high from defending their tribes.

Behavioral data showed a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning: partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Importantly, in both their behavioral and neural responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions for the neutral control targets, such as Hanks, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

While reasoning about apparent contradictions for their own candidate, partisans showed activations throughout the orbital frontal cortex, indicating emotional processing and presumably emotion regulation strategies. There also were activations in areas of the brain associated with the experience of unpleasant emotions, the processing of emotion and conflict, and judgments of forgiveness and moral accountability.

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning (as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion). The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged, says Westen.

Political parties harness neural wiring that was probably selected for to encourage tribal solidarity and mutual defense of the tribe. Today it motivates people to defend positions and actions taken by the leaders of their political faction. The human mind was not selected for by evolution to be a perfect reasoning machine.

I feel sorry for the partisans. They are basically drug addicts. But I have greater sympathy for the rest of us who suffer from their actions just as we suffer from the actions of drug addicts.

Update: Think about the pattern of cognitve reaction when people feel loyalties are at stake. Imagine a drug or other treatment could interrupt that reaction. One can imagine why people would want to take such drugs for themselves. One could think more objectively and rationally about business problems or personal problems or political issues. But one can also imagine why governments and other groups would want to avail themselves of neurotechnologies that would allow the disruption of feelings of loyalty.

Millions of people already take drugs to disrupt and prevent feelings of anxiety and depression. The idea of developing pharmaceutical and other medical means to disrupt and prevent other modes of emotional reaction therefore does not seem farfetched. If such disruption can be done with drugs it also probably can be done with genetics to cause offspring to have very different patterns of formation of loyalties. Will people choose to give their offspring different capacities and tendencies to form and defend loyalties? I expect individuals, cults, and governments to do this. I expect humanity to splinter into groups that have greater differences in cognitive function than human groups naturally have due to differences in selective pressures during our evolutionary past.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 25 07:30 PM  Brain Addiction

Jake said at January 25, 2006 8:21 PM:

You have explained why you should not argue about religion or politics. Both affect the same part of the brain and both cannot be changed with reasoning. They only can be changed by events.

back40 said at January 25, 2006 8:48 PM:

It isn't just politics or religion, it's everything, any vested interest.

Sumyung Guy said at January 26, 2006 10:25 AM:

Looks to me that research points out the moderates are likely to be the most rational people.
.....gee, there's a big surprise.

Lono said at January 26, 2006 11:24 AM:

Heh heh...

Well it just lends scientific credibility to what we already knew was going on with Republicans these days, eh?

Seriously, though, is this something we really want to change in the near future?

Doesn't it lend a certain predictibility to the populase that can be exploited for good purposes as well as evil?

We can't all be independant thinking anrchists - now can we?

I wonder if this is a similar mechanism to that which keeps reasonable people from seriously investigating and acessing major incidents like the Kennedy Assasination, 9/11, and the Roswell Incident.

Free your mind people... Free your mind!

aa2 said at January 26, 2006 1:27 PM:

Reason #2263 that democracy is a dumb idea.

Engineer-Poet said at January 26, 2006 2:45 PM:

I'd say it's more an explanation of how manipulators can destroy the self-correcting processes of (constitutional) democracy and make it as bad as other forms of government.

odograph said at January 26, 2006 4:11 PM:

For some reason, my thought process has always been to test out the opposite idea. I think this got reinforced as I spent my time in software engineering. The most useful (and timesaving) thing you could do with a new design solution - was think of a condition that "breaks it."

That said, I used to listen to KPFK (back in it's pretty commie days, heck they had shows called "socialist perspective" and "the soviet union today"), becuase I did get a zing from some of the "wrong" things they said. I hope they were wrong after I read this ;-). Actually, I remember one zinger than stands the best of time. After an hour or so talking up rent control and dissing appartement owners, someone called in tried to explain how hard it was to run an appartment. The KPFK host, after this hour (as I said) talking up rent control and dissing appartement owners, proceeded to then say "I don't know why anyone would buy an appartment building, they are a bad investmnet." Zing!

So maybe the zing is sometimes deserved, but it's good to be self-aware that it might not be, and work for moderation in all things.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2006 6:53 PM:

Sumyung Guy,

Maybe moderates just take the average of two wrong positions and become partially wrong in two different ways.

Matthew Cromer said at January 27, 2006 11:24 AM:

This same phenomena occurs whenever people become deeply convinced of the correctness of their belief system / group identity, ie: Democrats vs. Republicans, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Carolina vs. Duke, atheists vs. theists, Mac vs. PC or any other set of entrenched beliefs you might find flame wars about on the internet.

Most people are much more interested in helping their tribe win the debate / battle rather than finding any areas of merit that other tribes might possess.

Sumyung Guy said at January 27, 2006 12:03 PM:


I don't doubt that some moderates do exactly that. Other intelligent moderates who look at all sides of a problem for the solution that just works best (or is least bad), without allowing extreme ideology to dictate our choices, call those moderates "blithering idiots". :-)

Mthson said at January 27, 2006 12:10 PM:

This doesn't necessarily seem to be influenced by IQ. Scientists have done pretty silly things in the general "sociobiology wars," though at least in science, unlike politics, things slowly get worked out by scientific advances.

aa2 said at January 27, 2006 2:02 PM:

I agree the basis is the same for political partisanship/religious belief and mac versus pc.. but with one group their decisions don't effect us. If you believe in macs you can buy one, but if you believe in marxism as I would say a majority of the global populace does, well its not really a choice for everyone else. Same with religion, all religions seek to dominate which is why they are always a problem. If for example muslims had a private belief and private set of morals it would be no issue, but it never stops there.

Which is why we need not democracy but a constitutional system. Where unelected judges or presidents make decisions that are then enforced by the state. View Chile's rise from slums to suburbia and shopping malls, versus democratic peru's trip from slums, to larger slums.

gmoke said at January 27, 2006 2:52 PM:

Sounds like this is the way true believers (see Eric Hoffer's book of the same name) work whether that "true belief" is in a political party or techno-scientific salvationism. Interesting that Randall Parker proposes a techno-scientific salvationist drug regimen to "solve" the "problem."

odograph said at January 27, 2006 4:01 PM:

You guys ever take those on-line "political compass" tests? The attempt to classify you by the degree of social and/or market freedom you support.

It struck me half-way through one that they were asking me a lot of "always" and "never" questions. That is, should a murderer always be executed. Or, conversely should a murderer never be executed. My first reaction was that these questions were unfair to anyone with moderate views. Maybe (as with current law) you have reservations about executions of minors. (please readers do not latch onto this as a death sentence post)

The key, I realized later, was that people with a less moderate position WERE signing onto those "always" and "nevers." Which really means to me that they aren't introspecting as deeply on the question at hand.

Sad thing is ... the "always" and "nevers" types are the ones driven strongly enough to sieze control of both US parties.

PacRim Jim said at January 28, 2006 6:42 PM:

It's not for nothing that the sides have hardened after being spun relentlessly for decades. If a politician talks, assume it's a lie until proven otherwise.

Tom Wright said at January 29, 2006 9:02 AM:

This serves to remind us that reasoning, that is, applying logic rules, is a very recent evolutionary innovation. Its purpose is to decide questions that lack obvious self-interest emotional markers.
We are clever animals with lots of expert systems to monitor and evaluate our social position. We have built-in strategy preferences, such as pre-emptive aggression, avoidance, or conciliation, that make up our personal character.
All preset strategies can yield to facts, if necessary, but they come into play as a starting position. So the lesson of this study is that facts have to be presented as an argument that forces a conclusion, not as bare facts.

aa2 said at January 29, 2006 11:31 AM:

"You guys ever take those on-line "political compass" tests? The attempt to classify you by the degree of social and/or market freedom you support."

Yes and often the questions are like 'do you support multinational corporations paying near slave wages in foreign nations?'

--I support their right to do business and pay as little as the foreign labor market will accept. But at the same time I would give my purchase to a company who is more responsible, assuming the price isn't dramatically higher.

Yet by saying no you are classified as supporting trade restrictions and global labor laws. Still as a general guide some of the tests aren't too bad. I come out as socially liberal and economically right wing(which I believe also should be called economically liberal, as liberal means less restrictive).

Doug said at February 2, 2006 9:30 PM:
The feeling of partisan loyalty is an obstacle to rational thought. Abandon your partisan loyalties and the effect will be to boost your ability to understand political events.
The first of these two remarks seems quite true in a general way. However, the effort to understand politics seems to be a limit case. It's not straightforwardly obvious that one can come to understand politics better through the attenuation of an important political passion.
Addicts of partisanship need treatments that will prevent them from getting high from defending their tribes.
Randall, you say that with astonishing certainty, considering that, on an evolutionary hypothesis, bias in favor of one's own group and their opinions arose through natural selection. I grant, along with you, that understanding is highly valuable--for you and me, because of our highly unusual taste. But if selection pressure has lent powerful support to group loyalty, then it seems one has to take care when asserting that partisan loyalists need help getting rid of emotions and behaviors that have supported their ancestors thus far and that may yet serve them and their posterity for millions of years to come.

Be careful of urging people to practice, on themselves and each other, things that I would delight in practicing on a wartime enemy. It would be gorgeous, both strategically and scientifically, to watch a society go to pieces after I had somehow crippled the neural circuits supporting and reenforcing agreement within its populace. Imagine the joint satisfactions of scientific curiosity and voluptuous cruelty to be had from watching a society come apart in an orgy of critical thinking and total, blithe indifference to orthodoxy. Oh, god, I hope I get to live to see such a thing, but I wouldn't wish such a plague on the society within which I (and you) must live.

Randall Parker said at February 2, 2006 10:26 PM:


I join you in worrying about what people will do when they can make bigger modifications in how their brains work. However, I also worry that how our brains are designed is not compatible with the societies that are arising due to technology.

We are not in the environment we were selected for. So the extent to which we are compatible with our current and future environments is partially accidental. Lots of people can't handle today's environments and damage themselves and others as a result. I fear this problem will get worse.

Doug said at February 2, 2006 11:19 PM:


I agree with each sentence of your summary. The works of Ron Rosedale and Loren Cordain contrasting the ancient diet and the modern diet illustrate some of your points well. Another case in point of your remarks is provided by an anthology of articles on evolutionary psychology, called Subordination and Defeat; the authors show the way an ancient adaptation that reduced violence between members of the same species often works badly in present-day settings and becomes depression due to its failure to "shut off." And the problem of vitamin D3 deficiency, which we discussed some weeks ago, fits into the framework, too.


Randall Parker said at February 3, 2006 4:22 PM:


BTW, speaking of vitamin D: I got a depressed friend to take 4000 IU of vit D for other reasons and she says she feels more positive than she's felt for many years. She can't get over how much her mood has lifted and has commented that she no longer feels like dying. I've read that vitamin D can help in depression but have never gotten a depressed person to try it before. It is only a single data point but keep it in mind with depressed friends.

Yes, I agree about the violence problem. I fear our dominance hierachies have gotten so large that most people feel like they are dominated. Also, everyone can compare themselves and their romantic attachments to better looking people on TV and come out feeling worse as a result. Again, I see this as extending the hierarchies so that everyone feels worse in comparison.

Chris Phoenix said at December 22, 2006 8:13 PM:

Hm. I wonder if this mechanism might possibly account for the astonishing ability of abused people in relationships to put a positive spin on the abuse? Not only do they ignore it, they get high from doing so... In fact, I wonder if that might have helped it develop. If you're kidnapped as a slave, you'll only pass on your genes if you manage to fit in. That goes double if you're a concubine--you *have* to think well of your master.

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