- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Talk about hot-button issues. Political opinions are forged in the brain by heated emotions rather than reason, according to a study released yesterday by Emory University.

Magnetic resonance imaging revealed that emotional centers in the brains of a group of staunch Republicans and Democrats “lit up” when confronted with ideological messages, prompting these partisans to hear the same information but reach opposite conclusions.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory, who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up.”

Pollsters are quite familiar with this phenomenon.

“Public political opinion is very complex. Some people have long-held, unwavering outlooks; other times the 24/7 news cycle creates immediate reactions. Emotion is clearly a part of this, particularly among strong partisans, though other dimensions like personal values and knowledge come into play,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

“Throw a tax cut in front of a Republican and see what you get,” he added.

For his study, Mr. Westen recruited 30 committed Republican and Democratic men just before the 2004 presidential election. While their brains were monitored by scanning equipment, each man was asked to evaluate a series of statements made by President Bush or his challenger, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, followed by “threatening” counterclaims about the candidates implying they were dishonest or pandering.

The political beliefs, Mr. Westen found, seemed already hard-wired in each man.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” he said. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.”

The brain images revealed that the party loyalists engaged in emotionally biased reasoning. Negative emotions such as sadness and disgust were turned off, and the men ultimately got “a blast” of reward feelings. Mr. Westen compared the process to what drug addicts receive when “they get their fix.”

The emotional reasoning that drove each test subject to support his chosen candidate was entrenched, leaving little room for new facts, he found.

“Partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,” Mr. Westen said, adding that these biased judgments occur outside of awareness and are distinct from normal reasoning processes.

“These days, political ideologies are almost genetic,” New York-based pollster John Zogby said yesterday. “Plus, we are exposed to political messages meant to provoke a specific emotional reaction, designed to make you want to ‘buy’ politics, like a car or toothpaste. That comes into play, too.”

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