Tastes Great! Less Filling!

I hope you can pardon me for linking to research that is two years old, but I just found it.  It helps me explain why some of our conversations, including conversations on blogs, are unproductive.

In January 2006, some clinical psychologists from Emory University published a study. They attempted to map the nearal activity in our brains that takes place when we make judgements about partisan issues. The subjects of the study were committed Democrats and Republicans. During the three months prior to the elections of 2004, they were asked to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate and also threatening information about his opponent. This is what the director of the study reports:

We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts. . .Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions — essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted — not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward — .similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix. . .None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.

Since confession is good for the soul, I’ll go ahead and admit that I see a lot of me in the conclusions of that study. In particular, the part about “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged.” Ouch! A fanatic has been defined as a man who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject, and I sorrow to say that such a description can be applied to me sometimes. But the part that really aroused my curiosity is this:

similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix

Does this help to explain the compulsive nature of blogging?


  1. So if this is how drugs make you feel, then maybe I really didn’t miss that much in the 60’s.

  2. Thomas Parkin says:



  3. mondo cool says:

    My friendly atheist acquaintance likes this study to explain our devotion to the Church.

  4. mondo cool says:

    Or, as Paul Simon said: “SWtill a man hears what he wants to hear…”

  5. Interesting stuff, I thought, as I reminded myself, that of course there are individual exceptions.

    On a different note, the idea that drug addicts and loyal partisans experience similar reward systems reinforces that we have much in common with one another.

  6. I think it is certainly a part of the compulsive nature of blogging, and commenting on blogs. I finally have access, again, to BCC at work, after almost two weeks of absence. I can’t tell you how glad I am to finally get a fix.

    This study is really just an extension of the large body of evidence that indicates that our certainty of the rightness of what we know/believe is not based upon cognitive reasoning or intellectual activity, but is closer to emotional response.

  7. I can give it up any time I want. I swear.

  8. Meanwhile, all the reasonably open people who think partisanism is a bunch of hooey (i.e. most Americans) get fed up with the idiocy and stay home on election day. (I know, I know, that isn’t a very productive reaction, but I think it is what people do just the same.) Just my 2 cents.

  9. Something addictive that I’m not addicted to! Good news!

  10. What? Did you say something?

  11. Mark, the subject of that study falls under the broader notion of confirmation bias, which is a fascinating phenomenon that probably affects most of us — including me — more than we’d care to admit.