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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Politics is stupid.

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "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." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

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, Westen explains.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," says Westen. "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."

"Twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope".

posted by back40 | 1/24/2006 07:58:00 AM


Makes perfect sense. When given negative information we are put in conflict ( is this called cognitive dysonance?) and conflict is stressful. When we shape a conclusion that is emotionally acceptable to relieve the stress we get a reward response because stress is uncomfortable and all normal creatures move to comfort. I love it!

By Blogger Al, at 11:20 AM  

Should it not be "Partisanship is stupid" rather than "Politics is stupid." Politics is a necessary human activity that is perverted by partisanship.

By Blogger Leonidas, at 11:54 PM  

That "Politics is stupid" is a sort of running theme I've been flogging for some time at Muck and Mystery. I've taken to using it out of context and much is lost without it.

I've been making a distinction between politics and governance. It is governance that I would say is a necessary human activity. Politics and partisanship may be common or even natural human behaviors, but they are not necessary in the same sense.

By Blogger back40, at 8:58 AM  

As Aristotle asserts correctly in his "Politics," Man is a political animal by Nature. Where there are men, there you will find politics.

I can understand the desire to differentiate 'politics' and 'governance', especially in light of the mantra that 'the personal is political'. However, in the final analysis, 'politics' and 'governance' are synonyms. Politics is the necessary process whereby we govern, i.e., it is governance. Ideally the political process is deliberative. Unfortunately though, in reality it tends primarily to consist in the clash of partisan interests that are ultimately rooted in Man's natural love of his own (especially his own opinions, interests and faction).

In "The Federalist no. 10", Publius sees politics as the process whereby the political community can properly be governed, i.e., governed in order to achieve the common good. Essentially, when politics operates naturally, partisanship will check partisanship and ambition will check ambition. But when government itself becomes a faction (partisan), then the natural process is distorted. This distortion is the result of government having a vested interest in certain results (for example, a larger civil service and more government).

If I am not mistaken, it is this latter form of 'politics' that you would like to differentiate from 'governance', but properly speaking, it still is politics, it is only sick or perverted politics.

By Blogger Leonidas, at 12:07 PM  

I doubt that the ancients quite understood what the future held as human population swelled. They were tribal thinkers, small beer thinkers, and though they had useful perceptions about small scale civilization their ideas do not scale up to present needs.

It is no longer possible to deliberate in the sense they meant. The "town hall" model is equally inadequate. It's not possible to even know the views of so many much less do reasoned analysis about them to fairly arrive at a useful conception of the "common good" (quoted because it lacks convincing definition).

Those who speak of such things, and who have given sufficient consideration to scale, are doing politics - attempting to deceive others for instrumental reasons. Their objective is to dominate others by majoritarian means.

This is the rot at the heart of politics. It isn't at all about governance, it is about domination and power. Governance is for all the members of society, a way to accomplish necessary joint projects. Anything that is not necessary is not properly part of governance since some members are always harmed, and their is no justification for doing so. What does "common good" mean when many are harmed? Someone is doing a sort of heartless political calculus that discounts the pain of minorities, pressing ahead with what they can persuade a sufficient number of others to allow and support.

The result is continual turmoil. With a proper constitution to limit the predations of majorities and provide for peaceful if not smooth transition of power without resorting to selection from a ruling class by arcane means, it is possible for societies to prosper after a fashion for a time. The US is a couple of hundred years old. That's very young in one sense but quite old compared to most nations.

But it's a stupid way to live. The turmoil isn't necessary, it is the result of striving - gangs of thugs seeking to dominate all of society. We accept this as something natural or unavoidable but it isn't. "Is" is not the same as "ought". We are like that but we can suppress our instincts and behave more rationally. That's natural too or else we couldn't have even tribal scale societies without bashing one another in the head.

By Blogger back40, at 12:34 PM  

Sorry I did not reply earlier; I had class yesterday. Anyway ...

Aristotle was far from simply being a tribal thinker; recall, he was Alexander's tutor - you know, the young man who conquered the known world. While I would agree that the ancient polis does not have the same character as the modern day nation state, I would not, however, so readily dismiss the relevance of the insights of the ancients into political life. In fact, as technology continues to advance, it makes decentralized democracy much more feasible, i.e., it allows for the possibility of making more and more decisions at a local level while also ensuring that the political community at large can meet the necessary need of common defense, and so makes the insights of the ancients more relevant everyday.

The problem today is that decentralization requires not only that bureaucrats and politicians at the federal and even provincial level cede authority and power to cities, but also, that people generally have to be content with merely shaping the community in which they live. The fact, as Hobbes observed, remains that most people enjoy both freedom and dominion over others; they don't like others telling them what to do, but they nevertheless like to tell others what to do. This is a fact of human nature, and wishing otherwise will not make it go away.

Further, when you suggest that we can eliminate once and for all the "gangs of thugs seeking to dominate all of society" you are mistaken. Again, Hobbes noted that it is the prideful, spirited young men that are the problem in any and every society. In "Leviathan," he sought to outline a political regime that would channel such pride into socially useful activities such as policing and fighting for the common defense. (The regime outlined is that of the modern liberal monarchical regime. It was Locke who further 'humanized' Hobbes' teaching and converted the regime into a liberal democracy.) Wishing that people simply would behave rationally is utopian; people are people, not machines (or Vulcans). Emotion, instinct, feeling, reason, all of these will always play a role in human behavior - some more than others in different people, in different circumstances and at different times.

There is another problem with simply wanting people to behave rationally: human intelligence is fallible. Put simply, even if we all begin from the same premises, we do not all arrive at the same answer, some make many mistakes, others a few, and some none at all - and the mistakes are not necessarily the same ones either. This is the origin of the myriad diversity of opinions, which combined with love of one's own, especially of our own opinions, inevitably leads to conflict. Think about it for one second, our opinions are the products of our reason, which is the human part of our selves, it is the part that we identify with, and thus, we have a tendency to view the questioning of the validity of our opinions as a questioning of our humanity. Human beings have a tendency to react violently to slights to their intelligence. This is especially a problem for the question of what are the necessary joint projects - as I am sure you are aware, people's opinions on this matter differ quite a bit. So, I guess my question to you would be: 'what do you think are the necessary joint projects?'

Don't get me wrong, I'm a limited government person (and from what you've said I think you are too), even one that is very positively disposed toward a highly decentralized confederacy of democratic polities. Certainly government now does too much, but that was the point of my statement above, that government itself has become a faction within society, and that it is in the government's interest for there to be more government, not less. This places certain limits on what can be accomplished.

While you are indeed correct that 'is' and 'ought' are not identical, you have to recognize that 'ought' is necessarily connected to 'can'. You cannot say that something that is impossible 'ought' to be; the 'ought' must be possible or else it is simply wishful thinking. Finally, to know what 'can' be done, you have to understand what 'is' done. To ignore the 'is' makes it impossible to know the 'can', and thus, to know the 'ought.'

By Blogger Leonidas, at 1:20 PM  

Behaving more rationally isn't the same as being rational. It isn't an absolute. Being rational on occasion is dead common, we do it fairly often. We have suppressed some raw impulses and do behave more rationally for the pleasure of living among others. It's in our interests so we defer pleasure on some things.

The discussion is about stupidity (not intelligence, there are lots of intelligent people that are stuck on stupid). Politics is stupid because it does a poor job while taking lots of energy and costing a fortune - several fortunes. We got in the habit of doing politics for a while, but it's a twen-cen sort of thing, a small step above steam age thinking but past its sell-by date at this point. The whole fist in the air, mass hustle style didn't work well when tried and there are ever fewer who do not grasp this.

Saying that thugs aren't necessary is not saying that they can be eliminated. You are shadow boxing. They aren't necessary and lots of folks know that, perhaps more than ever, though trends can be difficult to see when you are in the middle of one. Hindsight is ever so much more acute. But there will always be sociopaths. Eliminating them would require an alteration of the species, perhaps a hacked genome or some really good drugs. The issue is whether they are accepted by society or not. Do we point and laugh, take prisoners, live and let live, or allow them to run rough shod over us?

The thing that confuses many is that there don't seem to be any knobs to turn, any mechanisms to get some separation from the old bad habits. All that is required is talk. The emperor is naked and all it takes to break the self deluded spell is to say so. The more we think outside the old ways the less grip they have on us. It's perhaps like losing your religion or something (I'm guessing here since I never had one).

It may seem impossible that we can govern ourselves more sensibly, but the fact that we have improved in the past can help us see that it is possible to improve further. Whether we will do so is not knowable.

By Blogger back40, at 7:20 PM  

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