More proof that emotion is a powerful force in making sense of information

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 9, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Changing behaviour, Knowledge, Strategic clarity

In 2004 Drew Westen and his colleagues put together an experiment to see how people of a particular political persuasion (Democrat or Republican) make sense of new information. Drew is a neuroscientist and advises political candidates on how to garner voter support. In this experiment he scanned the brains of 15 committed Democrats and 15 committed Republicans while showing them slides of conflicting information. Here are two examples:

Democrat example

Initial statement (Slide 1): During the first Gulf War, John Kerry wrote to a constituent: “Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition … I share your concerns. I voted in favor of a resolution that would have insisted that economic sanctions be given more time to work.”

Contradiction (Slide 2): Seven days later, Kerry wrote to a different constituent, “Thank you for expressing your support for the Iraqi invasion of Kawait. From the outset of the invasion, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush’s response to the crisis.”

Republican example

Initial statement (Slide 1): “Having been here and seeing the care that these troops get is comforting for me and Laura. We are, should, and must provide the best care for anybody who is willing to put their life in harm’s way for our country.”—President Bush, 2003, visiting a Veterans Administration Hospital.

Contradiction (Slide 2): Mr Bush’s visit came on the same day that the Administration announced its immediate cutoff of VA hospital access to approximately 164,000 veterans.

The committed Democrats and Republicans had no problem seeing the contradiction for the other party and rated the contradiction on average 4 out of 5 but this contradiction was nearly invisible for their own party where they rated it on average 2 out of 5. And the control group without an affinity saw all the contradictions.

Now that result might be obvious but Drew and his team were scanning these people’s brains at the same time as they were assessing this new information and they found something that is fascinating. The brains did register the conflict as an unpleasant emotion but for the political partisans they were able to shutdown that distress quickly through faulty reasoning. But here’s the thing. Once the negative emotions turned off, the positive emotions turned on. They weren’t just feeling a little better, they were feeling good.

Some implications of this research.

Don’t think you can provide nifty arguments to change people’s minds. People will reason things away in whatever way they can and feel good in their answers regardless of how faulty the thinking.

Emotion has a large part to play in our decision making so we need to employ ways of connecting with people that are emotional, such as stories.

In a large change initiative you are just not going to get everyone accepting a new way of thinking or approaching things so it’s important to work with those people who can take on the ideas and show the others it can be done.

Westen, D. 2007, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, PublicAffairs, New York.

Westen, D., Kilts, C., Blagov, P., Harenski, K., & Hamann, S. (2006). The neural basis of motivated reasoning: An fMRI study of emotional constraints on political judgment during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 1947–1958.

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