Mental Weasling and Extreme Partisanship

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?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tom F.

    I think openness to new ideas is like a muscle: it takes work to integrate new ideas in, and the muscle that’s involved can get tired (there is such a thing as too much new too fast). So people either get really good at using the muscle, or they get really good at avoiding having to use the muscle. There’s not many other options.

    I think the inclusive nature of God’s kingdom and reign means that God’s bias is towards “using the muscle” rather than avoiding it. Maybe its God grace to us that allows for our kingdom identity to give us enough security to hold more loosely to our other identities (Republican/Democrat, Jew/Gentile, Male/Female). Rather than try and make us act entirely without these strong social group biases, God redeems and reworks these biases in the church, with the transforming initiative that simultaneously insists on having the church be made up of people from every “tribe, tongue, people, and language”. Some social science research shows that having bridging identities can reduce prejudice (I may be white and you may be black, but we will actually get along best if I think of you as a black American and you think of me as a white American- the American identity acts as a bridge that doesn’t erase differences while also not accentuating those differences in a threatening way.)

    “How would that new loyalty manifest, physically?”- I would guess that people who have strong self-regulatory capacity or high tolerance for frustration would also be the most likely to tolerate the pain (I don’t think this is too strong a word) involved in having to integrate new ideas and facts in. Physically, there are always the relevant brain structures involved in these sorts of regulatory activity.

    I think things like debate team and political clubs and the like used to be places to practice this skill/strengthen the relevant “muscles”, but these activities are increasingly vanished from the social landscape, as rhetoric has been seen as less useful in persuasion that straight advertising saturation (30-second commercials with truly awful argumentation), and certainly less economically useful than math or science. In a parallel sense, it seems that those places where theological disagreement could be practiced and learned to tolerate disagreement (one thinks of places like Luther’s table talk) have also become less frequent; I’ve noticed that many of the Christian contexts I’ve been in have either tended to avoid theological discussion perhaps because of the possibility for disagreement, or they are hyper-sensitized to theology, wanting to make sure that you are completely orthodox (and usually in agreement with their pet issues). Both places would be detrimental to developing receptivity to new ideas, and to practicing the “muscle”.

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com greg metzger

    Scott, rich stuff and good questions. Your readers interested in this question of partisanship may want to see the current debate between David French and me on the ethics of Christian partisanship and how it can lead people on all sides to radically distort views. I think “partisanship” in a mild form is inevitable, but I think Christian partisanship in a culture war mode is very prone to subChristian forms of dialogue. (And yes, I have committed some of that myself). We need each other and the watchfulness of communities of discourse different from our own to challenge us in our commitment to truthful speech about our “partisan enemies”. You are a great model of this, Scot.

    Those interested in the French discussion can follow it at my site: http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com
    or at David’s Patheos site. Peace.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am a Penn State grad and have been surprised by the emotions and pain I feel with the whole Sandusky trial.

    The biggest emotional and obvious elephant lean I had was when they ousted Joe Paterno. Joe is a leader of the faithful and represented far more than just a football coach. He represented an idea as to how to play hard and fair and play for a team and not yourself. It is part of the Penn State heritage.

    Worse yet, my school is now know for this terrible event and not all the positive things that I think about it. I experience pain each and every time the idea of it being a place where such a terrible thing happened is not easy for my elephant to integrate, it hurts.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I was going to give this book a pass. Your review just rearranged my reading schedule. This insight is desperately needed, on all fronts. The fMRI experiment was the hook that caught me. Good stuff!

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Ann, a couple of thoughts here.

    I think most of us suffer, to some degree, from what I call contradistinctive personality disorder. We too heavily define our identity by what/who we define as the opposition. This is particularly true if we believe ourselves to have been traumatized by the opposition. The most common expression of this is if we have had a parent who failed us. We grow up determined not to be our parent. But where that leads to is not us seeking what is best for our kids but to us seeking to be our parent. That almost always leads to other dysfunctions.

    In past years at this blog, I’ve shared my disappointment with the Emerging church movement. So much of the ethos wass about being contradistinctive to Evangelicalism. Consequently, when a view is articulated that seems to reflect some aspect of Evangelicalism (or maybe seems “Republican”) it is resoundingly … and usually emotionally … dismissed. And when I’m on the receiving end of it, I do get the sense of having poked a wounded animal. Until we can forgive those who have wronged us we are not able to incorporate into our lives understandings that may have merit but we have rejected because of our contradistinctive impulses.

    But on top this, we also tend to gather others around us who will reinforce our contradistinctive identity, which then makes our views seem even more rational and others appear to be nuts. So I agree with the idea that extreme partisanship can be addictive but I think it is interesting to ask why we need a narcotic. I think a big piece of it is that for those of us who suffer from contradistinctive personality disorder, there is considerable pain involved in leaving that disorder. Our contradistinctive identity soothes us and gives us direction. It becomes our way of expressing our power against the thing/person/group that we feel traumatized us.

    But curiously, grounding your identity in something you oppose is in essence to be still controlled by the thing you oppose. It is hard work to escape the either/or of being controlled by the thing you oppose or being controlled by opposing the thing you oppose. That is hard work and the dopamine of extreme partisanship is a much easier fix.

  • http://www.createdtobelikegod.com theophilus.dr

    Just FYI
    Jonathan Haidt’s previous book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” is summarized at http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/chapters.html
    and there are links to the Introduction and Chapters 1, 4, and 6 which can be read on-line as pdf files.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Hi, all. I’ve been on the road helping w/ family issues, so please forgive my late interactions. That said, if my being late inspires such deep & thoughtful interaction, I’ll be late more often. :)

    Tom F – your metaphor of a muscle that needed to be developed, and then maintained, seems apropos! Inclusiveness & openness to new people (who bring new views and ideas and understandings with them) certainly takes humility and work. Furthermore, I very much agree with your use of the word, “pain”: the pain (I don’t think this is too strong a word) involved in having to integrate new ideas and facts in. I think that our understanding of how physically we’re knit together points to our need to see the depth of the meaning within our daily lives of cross, death and resurrection. AW Tozer wrote in The Pursuit of God:
    There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us… We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering… It is never fun to die. Yet…it is what the cross would do to everyone to set [us] free. I’ve noticed in my work as a hospice chaplain & in biblical reconciliation that those who resist the pain of dying to ourselves (even those who are in the midst of physically dying) are those who cannot reach the full measure of peace & reconciliation in Christ — with God and with others. So, from my POV, “pain” is right on target.

    Greg, well said: We need each other and the watchfulness of communities of discourse different from our own to challenge us in our commitment to truthful speech about our “partisan enemies”. I’ve also appreciated Scot’s hospitality to others, too. I’ve been dwelling in Luke 10 for a couple of weeks, and noting the connections between welcome, reception and shared peace, and their opposites. Thanks for the links! I’ll try to get to review your debating as soon as I’m home, again.

    DRT, I’m from Pennsylvania, too, and have relatives & friends who attended & support the university. Joe Paterno coached there as long as I can remember. How grievous the whole Sandusky situation has been to victims, their families, and how shameful of PSU officials for covering it up. I can’t imagine Paterno’s personal heartache before his death, and, if he was that naive – many in his generation were – his elephant must have veered hard to avoid what the assistant coach witnessed… How appalled he must have been – at either his own complicity being exposed, or his failure to act (for whatever reason). I tend to “lean” toward the latter reason, myself, but the reputed character of many young men who graduated through his program seems to favor that view of Paterno.

    Michael Kruse, “contradistinctive personality disorder”! Wow. Is that in the DSM? :) It seems a very descriptor to me, and you explained it well for us. This connections resonated strongly with me:
    And when I’m on the receiving end of it, I do get the sense of having poked a wounded animal. Until we can forgive those who have wronged us we are not able to incorporate into our lives understandings that may have merit but we have rejected because of our contradistinctive impulses.
    AND
    So I agree with the idea that extreme partisanship can be addictive but I think it is interesting to ask why we need a narcotic. I think a big piece of it is that for those of us who suffer from contradistinctive personality disorder, there is considerable pain involved in leaving that disorder. Our contradistinctive identity soothes us and gives us direction. It becomes our way of expressing our power against the thing/person/group that we feel traumatized us.

    My interaction with your thoughts are:
    1) As Christ-followers, we should pay attention to when others & when we respond as if they or we’ve been poked with a sharp stick, or “hot buttons” have been pushed. When we ignore/justify those sharp and fast responses, we’re ignoring that the riderless elephant is clearly trampling through the brush, from what I’m reading in Haidt. Would you agree that assessment?
    2) To your last sentence, I’d expand a bit more: [The contradistinctive identity] becomes our way of expressing our power against the thing/person/group that we feel traumatized us. It can also be a way of expressing solidarity with a dysfunctional group, because it is more “soothing” to REassert dysfunction more forcefully than it is to lose an identity wedded to that solidarity. I’ve seen this in my work with domestic violence perpetrators and victims. The perpetrators will continue to believe that greater force is necessary to “fix” the other person & “heal” the destructive relationship; enablers & victims will continue to imagine that if the victim were “more submissive” (“perfect”, “on time”, “thoughtful”…ad infinitum), all will be well. This is the most awful “soothing”, because it’s more along the lines of self-medicating — which occurs far too often, particularly in such dysfunctional family systems.

    Theophilus Dr. – more reading! Thank you for the links.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ann,
    I’m getting into this book now and find it fascinating and helpful. How do I find your previous posts? Found the one before this one but not further back.
    Bev


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