The Psychology of Partisanship

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Psychology of Partisanship

Politically speaking, America is an increasingly partisan land. In this article, the Washington Post cites research that confirms what many of us have long suspected about political partisanship:
Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they are.

... Partisans who watch presidential debates invariably think their guy won. When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.

... (In an experiment, a group of) partisans was repeatedly shown images of President Bush and 2004 Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

When Republicans saw Kerry (or Democrats saw Bush) there was increased activation in brain areas called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is near the temple, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is in the middle of the head. Both these regions are involved in regulating emotions.

(If you are eating an ice cream cone on a hot day and your ice cream falls on the sidewalk and you get upset, these areas of your brain remind you that it is only an ice cream, that not eating the ice cream can help keep those pounds off, and similar rationalizations.)

... Turns out, rather than turning down their negative feelings as they might do with the fallen ice cream, partisans turn up their negative emotional response when they see a photo of the opposing candidate, said Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In other words, without knowing it themselves, the partisans were jealously guarding against anything that might lower their antagonism. Turning up negative feelings, of course, is a good way to make sure your antagonism stays strong and healthy.

"My feeling is, in the political process, people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision," Kaplan said.

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