This post is by Ann F-R, and it is on Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind.
Last time, we looked at how naturally humans weasel our way – or, to be more exact, we imagine we weasel our way – out of accountability to our own words and actions, and seek justifications to confirm our biases. We strongly want to confirm our current positions, even though such positions may already or will harm our own or community’s best interests, and contradict facts. We would rather gloss our reputation and preserve our human alliances than perceive reality truly. We naturally do not want to consider outsiders’ perspectives.
Protective self-interest, according to our elephants’ automatic processes [elephant means the unconscious mind, the rider has to work hard to get the elephant to change], naturally overrules the truth and employs all its resources – the rider’s intellectual and justificatory means – to defend itself and its group against non-members or facts which challenge the individual’s or group’s images. These strong defensive tendencies to affirm our group and repulse challenges are confirmed by neuroscientific studies. Brain scans examining areas triggered by perceptions of threats to our groups’ leaders reveal patterns akin to those of chemical addictions.
Would any data be sufficient to make Christians reconsider whether we should have strong allegiances and partisan biases for any insider human groups and alliances? Does the “reign of God” indicate another citizenship with other loyalty markers? How would that new loyalty manifest, physically?
The groups we defend overlap with our varied physical (race, gender, age, and abilities), cultural, regional, language, social, economic, educational, professional and political sympathies.
Candidates stumping for votes make the same critical error as the rest of us. “Many political scientists used to assume that people vote selfishly, choosing the candidate or policy that will benefit them the most. But decades of research on public opinion have led to the conclusion that self-interest is a weak predictor of policy preferences.” (p.85) If we’d ever imagined that political or economic decisions are rationally chosen, research directly contradicts us. We will vote against self-interest to maintain our chosen position and group alliances. Facts are not permitted to impinge on our biases.
“Attitude polarization” occurs when opposing partisans are given the same data & research: the groups move further apart. (p.86) Facts, in and of themselves, contribute nothing to the resolution of our differences! Even worse, the emotion-areas of the brain are triggered to defend our group, our candidate and our views, not our reasoning & evaluation centers.
During the 2004 presidential election campaign, hyper-partisans of both major parties agreed to fMRI’s while they were reading slides in which candidates appeared hypocritical. The brain sector which coolly reasons wasn’t activated, but the emotion-related brain areas buzzed. The brain’s activity focused in areas which counter negative emotion and repel threats or punishment! When subsequent slides explained away their candidate’s hypocrisy, the brain’s reward center lit up as neuro-chemicals which induce good feelings were released. These are the same areas which are artificially activated by addictive drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.
[The researcher,] Westen, found that partisans escaping from handcuffs [via plausible explanation] got a little hit of that dopamine. …[this] would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid… partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive. (p.88)
The OT metaphor for the wicked when faced with God and God’s people described enemies as those who “hardened their hearts” against them. This physical description may be an apt method of describing the internal partisan “kick” that we may feel, or that we actually can observe in others in highly conflicted situations.
In retrospect, if you considering your feelings in a conflict, are you aware of the strong “elephant” lean which works against reconciliation or resolution? Have you noticed the tendencies we have to go with the group flow, even when we’re feeling ambivalent about outcomes, tactics or what’s best? What patterns or lessons do we find in scripture which might help us take care not to allow our natural “groupishness” to defeat the truth, ignore facts, and reinforce the lies we’d like to tell ourselves & one another?