by Eric Samuels

Chances are the headline you’ve just read has actually had the opposite effect; kicking your brain into a defensive mode in preparation for an attack of some sort. You don’t know what it might be, but the mere fact that you are being asked to keep an open-mind infers that a principle of yours is about to be challenged. This is how our brain works.

We face so much uncertainty in our day to day decision-making, that we tend to develop a curious intolerance for uncertainty, particularly on issues that are emotionally rooted in our psyche. As a result, our brain tends to take a defensive posture when there is even the slightest inkling of a challenge to any principle that we hold to be true.

Take politics, for instance. You would think that a discussion of political policies and process would be decidedly intellectual by nature. Not so. While the arguments might seem fact-based, at the root of any discussion between people with strong partisan affiliations are emotionally rooted ideologies as inflexible as concrete. Once a person has developed a strong political stance, the brain begins to process information differently.

Drew Weston, a psychologist at Emory University, conducted a study leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. He showed participants (each of whom had a stated party allegiance) a series of clearly contradictory statements from both candidates, George Bush and John Kerry. Participants were then asked to rate each contradiction on a scale. Not surprisingly, reactions were consistent with previously stated party allegiances. Democrats found the contradictions of George Bush to be far more disconcerting than those of John Kerry. The same phenomenon occurred with Republicans, who scored Kerry’s inconsistencies as far more troubling than those of Bush.

While this certainly isn’t shocking, what Weston discovered while examining the brains of the participants using an MRI, is fascinating. Participants weren’t using the reasoning faculties of the prefrontal cortex to analyze the information they were receiving. On the contrary, they were using reason to reinforce their partisan point of view. In other words, they would look for facts that allowed their brain to essentially say “see, I was right!” while actually blocking any evidence that their candidate was guilty of similar inconsistencies.

What’s even more extraordinary is that once they had successfully processed this oddly-wired analytical process, the pleasure-center of the brain was accessed, firing off a rush of endorphins, resulting in the person feeling really good!

This phenomenon has never been made more evident than in the relatively new phenomena of heavily partisan-editorialized television news networks. One has to wonder, watching blatantly biased content, how viewers could possibly consider what they are watching as being rational. But that’s just the thing; it’s always the other side that’s being irrational!

To prove the point, Psychologist Philip Tetlock conducted a study in which the opinions of political pundits (political commentators who invariably have specific political party affiliations) were put to the test. He asked nearly 300 pundits to make predictions about future political and economic events and trends. The result? Pundits predicted correctly, less than 33% of the time. Statistically speaking, a coin flip would have been far more accurate. What’s even more curious is that the more confident the pundit, the higher likelihood that they were wrong. Once again, the more tied to a point of view we are, the more likely we are to ignore all information that doesn’t conform to our belief. In other words, we don’t allow facts to interfere with our opinions!

This has implications far beyond politics. When making important decision with a preferred outcome, we tend to filter the process through a biased lens. This is one of the most common reasons for making poor decisions.

Does that mean that emotions should never play a part in the decision-making process? On the contrary, ignoring how we feel is equally dangerous. What makes us human, after all, is that we are capable of thinking and feeling, simultaneously. Striking the balance between the two is what makes us successful.

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