investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Posts Tagged ‘amygdala’

Emotions get the vote

In Neuroscience, Previously published on April 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I wrote this piece predicting that Kevin Rudd would win the 2007 election. The argument — that emotion, not rational thinking, rules our decision-making processes — applies equally to the coming federal election. Just swap “government” for “Coalition” in the second sentence.

First published in The Age. To see the original article click here

HERE’S my prediction. The Coalition will lose the next federal election. Not because Labor offers better arguments or more appealing policies. Not because the electorate is impressed by Kevin Rudd’s intellect or wit. Not because “It’s Time” or because John Howard is seen as yesterday’s man. The Coalition will lose because of the way the human brain works.

Backed by research in neuroscience, political psychologists argue that the thought processes behind decision-making — including how we vote at elections — are fundamentally emotional, not rational.

In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen, a clinical, personality and political psychologist at Emory University, Atlanta, writes that because emotions are intertwined with our beliefs and values, purely rational appeals from politicians don’t connect with the brain’s emotional circuitry and so are unlikely to sway us.

Aristotle knew this when he observed that a speaker who resorts to emotion can win over an audience even when his argument is weak; 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was on the same track when he wrote that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around.

Neurological research provides more concrete evidence. Brain imaging of voters shows that while they watch and listen to candidates the emotion centres of the brain light up first, not the frontal lobes, where rationality resides. From this — and a range of other research — psychologists conclude that we make emotion-based decisions that we later rationalise. Interestingly, once that decision has been made, we tend to ignore evidence and argument contrary to our conclusion.

It follows that politicians who present their positions in emotional terms are more likely to succeed. Based on his analysis of 50 years of US presidential campaigns, Westen believes that the conservative side of politics there has long understood the need to tap into voters’ “emotional brain”, whereas those to the left tend to cling to the idea that good argument, facts, and being right is enough.

Al Gore also understands the role of emotion in political discourse. In The Assault on Reason, the former US vice-president writes that “emotions have much more power to affect reason than reason does to affect emotions — particularly the emotion of fear”.

Gore notes that America’s founding fathers were aware of the importance of reason in defending against fear and tried to hard-wire it into the US constitution: “They knew that under the right circumstances, fear can trigger the temptation to surrender freedom to a demagogue promising strength and security in return. They worried that when fear displaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division.”

During his 11 years as prime minister, John Howard has often played on the passions, prejudices and anxieties of the electorate to win support. The fear of uncontrolled interest rate rises, political correctness, terrorism, the Opposition’s economic irresponsibility, queue-jumping asylum seekers, boat people supposedly willing to throw their children into the sea, the menace of union bosses, cultural elites and their black armband view of history — all emotional issues Howard and his colleagues have used to keep the electorate on edge and on side.

It helped that the Opposition leaders were for the most part ineffective. Kim Beazley was tarred as a waffler with no ticker; Simon Crean was uninspiring; and Mark Latham appeared erratic and risky. Still, polls show that the electorate often toyed with the idea of supporting the Opposition. Despite this, Howard has been able to push voters’ emotional buttons each time and gain another term.

WorkChoices has broken that cycle.

A briefing paper in April — prepared by the Department of Workplace Relations to inform the Government’s television campaign and featuring Workplace Authority chief Barbara Bennett — found that people believe WorkChoices has hurt working people and their families. It reported the “key emotions” of the community response to the new laws included fear, panic, insecurity, cynicism, distrust and disempowerment.

The two images that have formed in the community’s minds about WorkChoices, the report said, are of a pendulum that has swung too far in favour of employers and of the little guy pitted alone and unprotected against the big corporations and the Government. This response does not come only from “soft” Labor voters.

Polling of Howard-supporting and unaligned “battlers” by Essential Research — which has ACTU connections — shows the same antagonism to the laws.

The ACTU’s emotive anti-WorkChoice ad campaign of mid-2005 helped create this perception. By the time the Government responded, it was too late: the characterisation of WorkChoices as unfair, bad for workers and good for big business was cemented and nothing the Government has said or done — no matter how many facts and figures about increased employment or real wages it attributes to WorkChoices — has changed that impression. Labor’s standing in the polls shot up and has never looked like falling — and this was 18 months before Kevin Rudd became ALP leader.

In the electorate’s mind, Howard and the Coalition are now the thing to be feared and, by presenting himself as the safe, non-threatening, conservative alternative, Rudd will win the election. It’s the emotional side of our brains at work.

To have any chance, the Coalition must make Rudd and his team seem more a threat to the electorate’s interests than WorkChoices. Without scrapping the laws, it is difficult to see how this can be done, which is why we’ll see the mother of all emotive scare campaigns waged against every name on the ALP’s ticket.

It’s also why Labor and the unions will reinforce the electorate’s fears about WorkChoices at every opportunity.

And you can bet neither side will let facts get in the way of a good emotion.

Don’t Get Caught in the Web of Conspiracy Truthiness

In Previously published on April 10, 2013 at 10:19 pm

This article was first published in The Age on November 5, 2010.
To see the original article click here


ABC Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine got into a stoush a couple of weeks ago with the  September 11 conspiracy movement. It was entertaining talkback radio, but the phenomenon of large numbers of people willing to believe dastardly things — even in the face of solid, contradictory evidence — was scary and depressing.

(Conspiracy sympathisers: please read to the end before you unleash the flame campaign.)

Here’s how it unfolded: while locking horns with Faine on some other, now-forgotten issue, Kevin Bracken, president of the Victorian Trades Hall and secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, let slip that he didn’t believe the official version of what happened on September 11, 2001.

Faine leapt on Bracken like a barracuda on a sprat. And quite rightly, too: 9/11 conspiracy theory is a load of twaddle. Some of it is laced with malicious intent; some is fed by ignorance; and much is the embodiment of natural anxiety voiced by well-meaning folk who worry that they can’t trust their government or media to tell the truth.

A barrage of calls followed during talkback and continued for several days (many more, I understand, didn’t go to air). Furious conspiracy believers accused Faine of censoring the truth about September 11 and of complicity in the cover-up; some callers said conspiracy believers are stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to poison the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because they’re dangerous; others said conspiracy believers are stupid but should be allowed to fill the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because we still live in a democracy.

Several callers claimed that 50 per cent of people in Australia and the US do not accept the official account of what happened on September 11. If true, that’s a huge number, and we have to wonder why and how people’s trust in the established organs of society can become so warped.

My theory is that it has something to do with how the brain works and with how internet search works.

Scratch a conspiracy sympathiser and you usually find a natural cynic, a person who likes to think of themselves as a free-thinking individual, or someone with a deep-seated anxiety about the world. Sometimes they are combinations of all three. This is because their intellectual approach to the world is shaped by their amygdala — also known as the ‘‘lizard brain’’ — the oldest and most primitive part of the brain that controls our survival instinct. When the amygdala kicks in, emotion overrules reason and rational thought leaves the building.

The amygdala punches above its weight and has an excessive influence on our behaviour and beliefs. This makes sense in evolutionary terms: out on the savanna it’s in our interests to recognise every potential threat, otherwise that tawny shadow creeping through the long grass might be the last thing we see.

The downside is that it’s much harder to undo opinions that have fear at their core; they are immune to reason and facts. (These effects of the amygdala can become ingrained in cultures and societies, not just individuals. It plays a role in everything from racism to the strife in the Middle East.)

When our lizard brain takes over it puts us on edge, makes us want to find the threat, expose it and fight it — to the death, if necessary.

And that’s why there’s often a whiff of the manic in the voices of those presenting 9/11 conspiracy theories: the conspiracist believes that at some level, to some degree, their survival is at stake. And when politicians and media don’t give them voice they feel more threatened, more suspicious, cornered, helpless; and so they go on the attack.

Naturally, those wired with a predisposition for cynicism/anxiety/independent thought find comfort in theories of the world that reinforce how they feel. Here the internet plays a role.

Search results for information about conspiracy theories are distorted — distorted by fear (which shapes the approach used by the person searching) and distorted by the paradigms used by search engines.

A Google search for ‘‘9/11’’ brings up 115,000,000 results. The first is a Wikipedia entry about the attacks. The second is a Wikipedia entry about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Next come links to YouTube videos ‘‘exposing’’ the truth about 9/11; then entries for websites dedicated to archiving ‘‘facts’’ about the events of the day, links to various branches of the 9/11 Truth Movement and so on. That fills the first page of results and countless more pages filled with the same kind of results follow. The report of the 9/11 Commission — the official account of the events, which took three years to compile and is based on thousands of interviews and examination of evidence — doesn’t get a look-in.

The problem is that the high ranking of conspiracy theories resulting from a search is mistaken as authority when all it indicates is popularity of the search term and the websites visited. Just because something is widely believed doesn’t mean something is true; and just because conspiracy theories about 9/11 rank high on search results only means that lots of people are curious about them. Search engines tend to look for what other people are looking for and to throw those result higher. After a certain tipping point a topic’s popularity becomes self-fulfilling.

People too often use the internet to reinforce their ‘‘feeling’’ that something is true. (To describe this flawed kind of reasoning, American comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term  ‘‘truthiness’’ — the ‘‘truth’’ a person claims to know intuitively ‘‘from the gut’’ without being based on evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. Truthiness is the amygdala in action.) The internet’s democratic nature — with its widespread tools for communicating and organising — means fringe ideas can coalesce and find traction when they might not have in previous times. The internet then becomes an echo chamber for crackpot ideas and misinformation, creating ghettos of poorly reasoned opinion. Contrary ideas that wander into these ghettos are bashed and abused, tarred and feathered and dumped on the outskirts of town. Look like us, sound like us or get the hell out of here. It’s an unfortunate but widespread kind of human behaviour.

And so it is with 9/11 conspiracy theories. Never before has bad information been able to be distributed so far, so quickly, to such a receptive audience.

To properly understand an issue requires an open mind, willingness to look objectively at both sides of an issue and good judgment to assess the information found. The internet too easily steers those who’ve already made up their minds in directions that confirm their biases, and to the exclusion of alternative ideas.

To get useful answers to legitimate questions requires a rigorous, honest approach on the part of the investigator. My advice:

* When researching anything on the internet, don’t go looking for information that simply reinforces what you already believe (or ‘‘feel’’) to be true.
* Don’t mistake questions about an event for proof that something dastardly happened.
* Don’t think that the number of hits on a subject makes it more authoritative than another.

On that last point, consider this: a Google search for ‘‘9/11 conspiracy’’ yields 4,660,000 results. A search for ‘‘the earth is flat’’ throws up 56,500,000 results.

I’m just saying.