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.