“Tell me anymore of your sweet little lies and I’ll sic Woody Woodpecker on your woody ass”
Picking up on the theme of my previous post concerning the role that facts play, or more to the point, don’t play, in the poisoned narratives that infect the Wingnutosphere, Digby draws our attention to an article posted over the weekend in the Boston Globe titled: How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains.
Money quotes from the article:
In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?
Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger…
“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
Late to the party, at least some reporters in the M$M are now catching on how the propaganda meisters on the right are exploiting insights from the cognitive sciences to pursue an agenda inimical to the very interests of the Teabaggers that would support them.
Missing from the article, however, is an explanation of the neurological mechanism underlying the backfire phenomenon. Exactly two years ago, I drew attention to Dr. Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. In the Introduction, Westen reports an experiment in which political partisans are presented cognitively dissonant information about their favorite politician. Functional MRIs reveal which parts of the brain are involved in processing that information, and the extent to which the brain will go to restore mental harmony:
The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And all this seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.
The results show that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to “reason” to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints when they do.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons become active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, or unconscious, or some combination of the two, we don’t know.
The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.
But the political brain did something we didn’t predict. Once partisans found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions shut off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating rewards circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap significantly with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix”, giving new meaning to the term political junkie.
Veteran reporter Carl Bernstein describes the feedback loop that modern journalism enables by dumbing down the American voter (and themselves in the process):
The lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.
Garbage is as garbage does.
On a philosophical note, I suspect that what cognitive scientists are describing above is a legacy phenomenon of our primitive ancestors who, immersed in hostile environments, couldn’t afford the distraction of doubt. Evolution selected for certainty and rewarded it with endogenous chemical opiates and corresponding neural receptors to foster survival. This in turn laid the neurological foundation for enlightened human interaction with the larger, spiritually friendly cosmos like the one described in The Urantia Book. Such interactions are rewarded in the short run by embodied feelings of spiritual ecstasy and in the long run with the certainty of eternal survival.
Citing favorably the teachings of each of the world’s major religions, The Urantia Book credits the following to Buddhism (a favorite of meditating neuroscientists like the late Francisco Varela):
“Cheerfulness and gladness are the rewards of deeds well done and to the glory of the Immortal. No man can rob you of the liberty of your own mind. When the faith of your religion has emancipated your heart, when the mind, like a mountain, is settled and immovable, then shall the peace of the soul flow tranquilly like a river of waters. Those who are sure of salvation are forever free from lust, envy, hatred, and the delusions of wealth. While faith is the energy of the better life, nevertheless, must you work out your own salvation with perseverance. If you would be certain of your final salvation, then make sure that you sincerely seek to fulfill all righteousness. Cultivate the assurance of the heart which springs from within and thus come to enjoy the ecstasy of eternal salvation...”