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Inside the Tea Party Brain: Can Science Explain Their Seemingly Irrational Rage?

Research suggests we may be a nation divided by different cognitive styles.

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Mooney: Yeah, this is another way of measuring authoritarianism, because the theory is — and it seems pretty sound to me — that if you’re an authoritarian, one of the places it’s going to come out is in how you view child rearing. That is a situation in which the parent has to exert some level of authority, but parents interpret that differently. And if someone interprets parenting as sort of a strict father model — you need to obey the rules — then that’s an authoritarian style of parenting. So he’s just saying, ‘let’s ask about parenting and we’ll figure out who our authoritarians are,’ and what’s good about that as a scientific method is that you’re not actually asking anything that seems politically tinged. You could be confounding your variables if people get the sense that you’re asking them something political, but that’s not the case here — you’re just asking about parenting. That’s what’s nice about it.

Holland: Now,  George Lakoff says that our brains have both liberal and conservative moral circuits — if you will — neural pathways. And when one set gets activated again and again it grows stronger and the other set becomes weaker. How does Fox and the right wing blogs and the whole conservative media bubble play into this pattern of polarization, if we accept Lakoff’s argument?

Mooney: Right, and I don’t think Lakoff would be necessarily inconsistent with others here. You’re reinforcing a circuit in the brain, so to speak, and the more it’s used the more powerful it becomes and the more it becomes habitual to  use it. I think it’s a very different thing, but if you just think about how if you’re a musician, and you practice the guitar every day, then basically you wire your brain to have a certain aptitude, and every time you pick up the instrument, you’re going to be just as good. But if you then don’t practice for a year, you pick it up, and boy, some things are still going to be there, but some things are going to be lost. If you reinforce these political/emotional circuits, it’s a similar effect. The more you use it, the more it becomes part of you.

So what this is getting at is that the brain is plastic to a certain extent, but at the same time, a lot of the research suggests that there’s something very deep about political differences. So you’re probably predisposed to feel a certain way, but then if you reinforce the circuit you can strengthen that, or if your life experiences take you in a different direction, it can weaken those views.

Holland: You spoke earlier about how we all have a tendency to marshal evidence that confirms our previously held worldview and reject evidence that contradicts it — this is known as motivated reasoning. Is that something that both liberals and conservatives do to a similar degree, or do we see differences in this area?

Mooney: There’s no doubt that both do it. All the studies show that. And this is a debated issue right know — whether there’s asymmetry or not. I can point you to a number of papers that seem to suggest some sort of asymmetry. But there are researchers who are not convinced, and there are some papers that don’t show asymmetry. So it’s a big debate and it depends largely upon what kind of evidence you buy.

I would expect you to have asymmetry. I would at least expect that on those issues where conservatives have a stronger moral sense, say about an in-group thing, I would expect their emotionally motivated response to be stronger just because they’re feeling this more strongly. So I would certainly expect more response in one of those areas where just generally it’s something they feel more strongly about. That doesn’t seem like a hard thing to assume.

 
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