Friday, January 27, 2006

Trollery Explained

I'm always confused by political arguments. I remember in 1997 or so when my uncle, who lives in Texas, told me that George W. Bush was going to be the next President. I thought to myself, Who is George W. Bush? Why should he of all people be President? But there he was, President right on schedule. Similarly, we have found ourselves frequently discussing Hillary Clinton, a woman who as far as I can tell has never held an administrative position of any sort in her entire life, as a likely candidate for the most important administrative position in the world. How does this happen? Beats me.

Even more troubling to one who has dedicated his life to the pursuit and application of logic is the outright refusal by partisans to listen or respond in any way to facts or arguments which logically contradict their stated positions. A certain troll infecting this very blog jumps immediately to mind, but my own political thinking isn't necessarily free of logical contradictions either. Still, how can people adhere to beliefs which are flat-out contradicted by the facts? How can people with a straight face claim to be "liberals" and at the same time favor Saddam Hussein's continued butchery?

A new study casts light on this dark corner of the human mind.

During the 2004 election campaign, Republican and Democratic partisans were hooked up to brain machines so their brain activity could be analyzed. The Republicans were handed a pair of statements from Bush which logically contradicted each other, the Democrats a similar pair of statements from Kerry. What happened?

That part of the brain which processes logic completely turned off. The partisans were physiologically unable to detect the logical contradictions. That's a little shocking, but not terribly surprising upon consideration.

Next, the statements were switched: the Republicans received the Kerry contradictions, the Democrats the Bush contradictions. This time the parts of the brain which involve logical decision-making lit up and both groups were able to detect the logical contradictions in the other party's candidate. Again, not terribly surprising.

Now here's the kicker. The very act of looking at logical contradictions in one's own candidate, while turning off the logical analysis parts of the brain, caused a completely different part of the brain to light up instead. "...activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix."

So there you have it. "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....", said one researcher. Trolls are getting a fix from denying reality, they're enjoying a rush from ignoring the logical contradictions. It follows that arguing logic and facts with such people is not only useless, but self-defeating. They are getting positive brain-shocks from reasserting their illogical statements in the face of contradictory facts. Denying reality is making them feel great.

Update: Specter in the comments below notes that the cited study was a very weak study as studies go, so don't take this as the Word of the Divine. Think of it only as a possible pointer in the right direction.


chuck said...
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Syl said...

Ah, there was a discussion about this over at Tom Maguire's.

I think the conclusion I came to (based on CathyF I think) was that the people taking the test were politically aware and were only reacting to the stupidity of the questions rather than their content.

Stuff junk science is built on. :(

As to the basic question itself, arggghhhhh. Too frustrating to contemplate 'til I get some sleep.

chuck said...

"...activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix."

It looks like we are hardwired to follow demagogues. Much is explained, but why is such a trait useful?

So... what does your uncle say about 2008? He seems a man of uncanny prescience and I would like to place some bets early on

Knucklehead said...


Time does not allow me to dig into this at all.

Oddly, upon my initial quick reading of it I recalled and was compelled to go look up this "scientific" discovery I recalled being announced once upon a time:

Science catches up to age-old beliefs about children's growth.

My next reaction was that I would look forward to Syl's take on it.

More later, I hope.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Perhaps the explanation is as follows. Sometimes it is necessary for us to achieve goals and not get distracted. Sometimes survival requires that we totally focus all of our energy on the goal at hand and block everything else out.

My observation of political reasoning is that it often goes like this. 1) There is a certain goal I want to achieve (make abortion legal for example). 2) This goal is more important to me than anything else. 3) I must focus all of my political energy on those people who will help me achieve my goal. 4) Therefore all of the people whom I perceive to be in favor of my goal are good and all opponents are evil. 5) Everything else must be blocked out.

I submit that this "cart before the horse" reasoning process is extremely common in politics, on every side. By contrast, there is another group of people who are looking for truth, wherever it may lead. An excellent example of the latter is neo-neocon.

Sissy Willis said...

"Getting positive brain-shocks from reasserting their illogical statements in the face of contradictory facts. Denying reality is making them feel great."

It sounds all too human. According to a University College London study

"Love leads to a suppression of neural activity associated with critical social assessment of other people and negative emotions . . . The work could provide a neurological explanation for why love makes us blind."

What is this thing called love?

Morgan said...
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Knucklehead said...


I keep getting bogged down looking for some information about the duration of the test.

But while poking around I clicked in to
Brain Scans May Unlock Candidates' Appeal
and found this little tidbit:

Nonetheless, some differences appeared between the brain activity of Democrats and Republicans. Take empathy: One Democrat's brain lit up at an image of Kerry "with a profound sense of connection, like a beautiful sunset," Freedman said. Brain activity in a Republican shown an image of Bush was "more interpersonal, such as if you smiled at someone and they smiled back."

I think they found something other than "empathy".

Knucklehead said...

Heh, now, hang on just a second! What sort of crazy site did you point us to, MHA?

Sissy Willis said...

You hear what you want to hear . . . Unless you're you/Neo.

"Denying reality is making them feel great"

truepeers said...

We think in terms of paradigms, which we have because our consciousness is scenic and a paradigm is a kind of master narrative, event, or scene, like a founding event/scene of a religion (e.g. passion, crucifixion, resurrection). When we can fit all information, all "logical contradictions" into our scene or story, we are happy, at one with the scene or whatever centers it. A "logical contradiction" is often just abstracted from two different moments in the unfolding event/scene, e.g. "was my guy just crucified or did he give himself for my sins and was resurrected?" No such contradiction, then no crisis/event, no transcendent figure that survives the event to make the (e.g. Christian) story, no paradigm, and no consciousness.

Specter said...

The study referred to was covered over at JustOneMinute. The sample was 30 men (no women) who were paid $50 to be in a MRI machine and read the conflicting statements.

It sure sounds like there was a problem with the statistical population.

Morgan said...

Without actually reading the study, I suspect that the population was all men because they wanted to subtract baseline brain activation from the activation under the manipuation. Women's brains respond differently, and are smaller, to boot, and that adds noise to the data.

As for the size of the study, the null hypothesis in these experiments is that there will be no difference in activation patterns (which of course is not the case), and they usually reject at the 0.0001 level of lower, depending on how they define the regions of interest - normally they divide the brain into a few million cubic millimeters or so (after accounting for head size differences as best they can).

So the reasoning runs like this:

"We hypothesize that activation will differ between baseline and manipulation."

"Look! It does!"

"Look! The active region is the part of the brain that we think has something to do with reward and reinforcement/learning and memory/higher order processing "

"Therefore, the manipulation is highly rewarding/memorable/characteristic of humans!"

"Call the press, and start working on another grant!"

markg8 said...

Wow people can be manipulated! LOL. Like Kevin Klink's uncle used to say "This ain't rocket surgery" fellas.

If you believe the Swifties instead of the Navy about Kerry's war record you've been manipulated. If you think Abramoff is a bipartisan scandal you've been manipulated. If you think Sam Alito is a moderate you've been manipulated. If you think democracy will destroy Islamist opposition to the West you've been manipulated. And the sad things is you've been fooled by fools.

Luther said...

Just tell Kerry to release 'all' of his records, them we can decide for ourselves and not be so manipulated.

markg8 said...

Like I said if you believe the Swifties instead of the Navy about Kerry's war record you've been manipulated. In Luther's case you've apparently been brainwashed.

Peter UK said...
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Luther said...

That's it Mark, avoid the point. Your world sounds like a scary place to be. Just who do you believe?

Syl said...


Oh well, I'm late to this corner of the party but...

Kerry's war record consists of citations for his purple hearts. Guess who wrote those citations? Kerry! Citations are taken from the After Action reports, which Kerry wrote.

Clever, isn't it?