As you read this, experts are hard at work studying the brains of people suffering from myriad ills, from Alzheimer’s to dyslexia … to, apparently, political passion.
On Monday, USA Today’s Dan Vergano reported on a recent study conducted by Harvard psychologists testing how “a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex” — which, neurologists think, is “key in the making of judgments about other people” — “works with politics.” (Don’t we already know what’s really “key in the making of judgments about other people” in politics? That is, talking points drilled into voters’ brains by an unquestioning press?)
For all of the beard-tugging that has been done over the question of Why The Country Is So Politically Divided, it turns out that we may be able to “blame it on the brain,” as Vergano’s headline reads — that the prefrontal cortex, reports Vergano, “may play a role in the current ‘Talk Radio’ era of polarized politics.” (Funny; we had thought that humans had prefrontal cortexes even before the era of Talk Radio.)
This isn’t the first study to explore the broad question of “How Do Voters Think?” (or is it, “What Were Voters Thinking?”) — a topic sure to get the media’s attention. Over a year ago, we reported on the New York Times’ reporting on a study about how the brain processes political attack ads.
Like that study with its sample of 11 subjects, this one must be taken with several boulder-size grains of salt, in that it was based on a sample of 15 left-leaning college students from the Boston area. Unlike the earlier study, which yielded some arguably interesting findings (Republican brains process political ads differently than Democratic brains!), this study’s findings left us shrugging.
Its conclusion? “Put simply, the brain does a bad job of putting you in the shoes of people you perceive as different … in technical terms, people tend to ‘infrahumanize’ members of dissimilar groups … ‘It almost means you view them as subhuman,’ thinking they [lack] higher emotions like love and guilt, or the depth of emotional experience of your own society,” said the study’s author.
In other words, rabid idealogues are not good at putting themselves in the shoes of political enemies — a shocking finding which teaches us, according to the study’s author, that we should “stress how similar we are to other people to avoid prejudice.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
After all, we’re all infrahuman to someone’s mind.