Partisanship is a toxin and a potent mind-altering drug

Partisanship is a toxin and a potent mind-altering drug
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What if someone told you that almost every day, you consume a toxin that seriously impairs your critical faculties, preventing you from accurately assessing arguments and data? Most of us would want to find a way to eliminate that toxin from our lives, to regain our ability to reason. While few recognize it as such, partisanship is that toxin, effectively a potent mind-altering drug, exerting a decisive influence on one’s brain activity — an influence of which the the subject is not even aware.

A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication sheds new light on the power of politics over the brain. The researchers, led by sociologist Damon Centola, wanted to see if interacting on social networks could actually help participants interpret and form predictions from data on sea-ice levels in the Arctic.


Prevented from communicating with others, both Republicans and Democrats held to their prior climate change opinions and submitted less accurate forecasts; their judgments improved significantly when they were permitted to communicate, anonymously sharing their opinions on the experiment’s social media platform.

But the positive effects of this kind of social learning were fragile, easily undermined by the drug of partisanship. “All we did,” Professor Centola observes, “was put a picture of an elephant and a donkey at the bottom of a screen, and all the social learning effects disappeared,” participants’ reverting straightaway to “inaccurate beliefs and high levels of polarization.” If people desire instinctively to exchange ideas, to learn, and to update, they are nonetheless blinded or at least deeply influenced — intoxicated, we might be tempted to say — by political imagery associated with one or another “team.”

Our capacities for critical thinking and learning are deeply compromised by our team loyalties. These findings are consistent with those of previous research that has shown parts of the brain, those tasked with processing critical thinking and reasoning, literally going dark to avoid the unpleasantness of discommoding political information.

In his book, “The Political Brain,” Drew Westen describes how the brains of partisans “‘reason’ [their] way to the desired conclusions,” adopting faulty thinking in order to “turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.” What’s more, the brain actually goes out of its way to reward this biased and self-contradictory “reasoning,” content to curate pleasing, bias-conforming information.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that most people (approximately two thirds) will actually forgo the opportunity to win more money just “to avoid hearing from the other side.” It turns out that people really don’t want to confront information that could potentially disrupt their worldviews.

The journey human beings took to get to where we are now helps to explain our irrational need to root for the home team, even to the point of neglecting important facts and discounting opposing arguments.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of tribal membership and belonging to the brain’s evolutionary path. We conceive of ourselves largely as members of different groups, as collections of various identities defined by those groups, one of which is political identity. Due in large part to the brain’s evolution, one’s sense of self is deeply bound up with her sense of inclusion within certain groups, with the satisfaction and affirmation that accompany her agreement with them.

Her ability to make her thinking, beliefs, and ideas conform to those of the larger group is likely to be more important to her happiness, success, and (especially in the case of our prehistoric forebears) survival than her sensitivity to objective facts about reality. Quite subconsciously, then, the mind subordinates the quest for objective truth to this human psychological need to insulate our group identities from outside threats. Secure in our partisan strongholds, we build barricades and set traps to beset the creep of perceived enemy ideas.

But even if tribal loyalties are part of what defines us, it would nonetheless seem that political partisanship is robbing us of another part of being human: our ability to reason. These insights on the relationship between political loyalties and thinking critically counsel caution in the use of the drug called partisanship — if not complete abstention. Consider that an intelligent, educated adult would likely have to be deep in her cups before she would misinterpret a simple chart, but this is what partisanship is causing us to do all the time as we process all kinds of information.

In the real world, as opposed, perhaps, to the one described by cable news, one side (liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans) is no more honest, hardworking, or decent than the other, no more evil, double-dealing, or dangerous.

Were we to infer others’ values by looking to their behavior, rather than to indicia of their partisan group membership, we would find that members of the two “teams” are more alike than different.

David S. D'Amato is an attorney, an expert policy advisor at both the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute, and a columnist at the Cato Institute's