Thankfully, the days of “neuropunditry,” which sought to decipher voters’ thoughts with brain imaging and which blighted coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, have not been reprised this election season. Unfortunately, lame attempts to somehow gauge the direction of the current race using science have still popped up here and there.
The most conspicuous was perhaps an article that graced the cover of The New York Times’s weekly Science Times section on Election Day. Headlined, “Cede Political Turf? Never! Well, Maybe,” is a Pollyannaish piece of work, which reported that “recent research suggests that several strong but subtle psychological factors will be pushing Democrats and Republicans in an unexpected direction — toward engagement instead of name-calling and nastiness.” The evidence offered in support of that hypothesis is pretty weak, however.
The first person the article quotes is Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’ve done a good job of documenting how harshly humans treat their enemies throughout evolution,” he said. “But we also have evidence of an early shift in human evolution to hypersociality - a default orientation toward trust, toward sharing resources, toward forgiveness.”
So all Keltner is saying, basically, is that human beings have the capacity to fight or cooperate depending on the situation. Well, stop the presses! Finally, we can begin to understand how politicians work! Or not.
In order to support Keltner’s statement and bend the discussion toward current events, the Times declares a few paragraphs later that “A series of recent studies demonstrates how quickly large differences can be put aside, under some circumstances.”
It’s never explained which studies pertain to this “series,” where they were published, who conducted them, or whether or not they were robust. One of them, however, involved psychologists having a group of patriotic college students read a report that argued that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were partly a response to American policy in the Middle East. The students “judged the report harshly” unless they had first described a memory that made them feel proud or courageous. The takeaway message, according to the Times, is that:
Confronting an opposing political view is a threat to identity, but “if you remind people of what they value in some other domain of their life, it lessens the pain,” said the lead author, Geoffrey L. Cohen, a social psychologist at Stanford. “It opens them up to information that they might not otherwise consider.”
Well, okay. Perhaps that’s so. The Times backs up the research with an anecdote about the 1978 Camp David accords, where President Jimmy Carter apparently stopped Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin from walking out on the negotiations by showing him pictures of his grandchildren. But how in the world does that research or that anecdote support the article’s assertion that “several strong, but subtle psychological factors will be pushing Democrats and Republicans toward engagement instead of name-calling and nastiness”?
Do we, for some reason, expect members of Congress to begin recalling their “treasured memories” or rifling through family photo albums before important committee hearings, floor debates, and votes? Surely not. Surely the Times had some other reason to be so optimistic about bi-partisan cooperation. And, of course, it did—but that reason is even more laughable than first. After laying out the memories hypothesis, the article ventures that:
One reason sworn enemies may soften after the campaigning is over and they’re seated face to face is that conversation subconsciously synchronizes people physically new research suggests that conversation partners quickly and subconsciously begin to speak alike — even when they don’t care for one another.
Seriously!? While there’s probably nothing wrong with this research, is our hope for the future of American politics really pinned on the expectation that Northeastern Democrats will begin to pick up a Texas drawl, or that Great Plains Republicans will suddenly adopt a California twang? Clearly, the Times is bending evidence to suit an argument rather than forming an argument that matches the evidence.