Note: With the election behind the nation, there is now urgency to achieve bi-partisan agreement that prevents sequestration and the so-called fiscal cliff. With this as context, I repost this May 24, 2010 entry.
Lately, I have noticed a striking phenomenon. My republican friends regularly complain about the nation’s budget deficit. My democratic friends suddenly are not complaining about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Why do I find this striking? Well, just a short time ago when George W. Bush was president, my republican friends did not complain about the nation’s budget deficit, despite the fact that Mr. Bush ran up $4 trillion in debt. Similarly, before Barack Obama’s election, my democratic friends couldn’t stop complaining about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Hold on,” you might say, “things have changed.” Well, yes, the deficit has continued to grow and, yes, our involvement in Iraq has diminished. However, much of the current deficit accumulated under President Bush and, while our troops have begun to withdraw from Iraq, there has been continued escalation of their involvement in Afghanistan.
I like my republican and democratic friends. I think they are reasonable people. So what is going on here?
In How We Decide, Jonathan Lehrer describes how partisan bias prevents sound thinking, reasoning and decision-making. Lehrer highlights Emory University professor Drew Westen’s study of voters in the 2004 election. Weston showed study subjects statements made by candidates George Bush and John Kerry that were clearly self-contradictory. Subjects were then asked to rate the level of contradiction. As you might expect, voters ratings were “largely determined by their partisan allegiances.”
“Well, that makes sense,” you might say, “it’s a matter of loyalty.” In fact, the root of partisan bias is deeper.
fMRI studies showed what was happening in the brains of the biased voters. “Westen realized the voters weren’t using their reasoning faculties to analyze the facts; they were using reason to preserve their partisan certainty. And then, once the subjects had arrived at a favorable interpretation of the evidence, blithely excusing the contradictions of their chosen candidate, they activated the internal reward circuits in their brains and experienced a rush of pleasurable emotion. Self-delusion, in other words, felt really good. ‘Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want,’ Westin says, ‘and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.'”
In short, we are hard-wired for self-delusion and partisan bias. As Lehrer goes on to say: “… rationality actually becomes a liability, since it allows us to justify practically any belief. The prefrontal cortex is turned into an information filter, a way to block out disagreeable points of view.”
Clear thinking and sound decision-making requires that we be aware of and counter our natural inclination to partisan bias.