Dick Meyer at CBS wonders whether attempts at political persuasion are mostly useless. The question is prompted by a study showing that political partisans processed statements by the 2004 presidential candidates with the part of their brain that handles emotion, not with the reasoning centers of the brain. By contrast, centrists and independents were more likely to process the same statements rationally.
I find this study fascinating, but I don’t conclude from it that political persuasion is mostly useless or that political partisans are mostly irrational. For one thing, the study appears to have analyzed immediate reactions only. While the rational part of the partisan brain may not start firing instantly, it’s possible that it subsequently comes into play (like when I can’t find my car keys). My initial reaction to something Al Gore says may be exclusively emotional. However, I like to think that by the time I start blogging about the comment, the rational part of my brain usually is in control.
Of course, most Americans don’t take the time to write about what they hear politicians say, and many may not have a second, more considered reaction to such statements. However, I suspect that to the extent partisans react in highly emotional ways to political information, it’s due to prior rational deliberation about politics. In this account, the emotional reaction occurs because partisans have chosen to care deeply about politics and to side with a particular faction. By analogy, when I watch Everton play Liverpool on March 25, I will become incensed if Jamie Carragher knocks James Beattie down in the penalty area and the referee fails to award a penalty kick. Were John to see the same thing, he would merely shrug his shoulders. But that’s not because John is more rational than I am. It’s because, unlike John, I chose to care about English soccer and to support Everton.
These choices were not irrational (except maybe the part about Everton), and there’s no reason to think that most decisions to become a political partisan are either. Certainly, the fact that partisans now react emotionally to political information is not evidence that the process through which they became partisan was irrational. Nor is it evidence that these individuals cannot be persuaded to change their mind over time because, again, their consideration of political issues probably is not limited to spur-of-the-moment reaction. True, it’s harder to convert someone who is deeply committed to a cause than someone who is not, but that’s hardly a surprise.