Monday, March 27, 2006
Bias Plays Havoc With Human Relationships
There's a lot we can learn from this fascinating study, and not only, perhaps, regarding how many people form their views on political and all kinds of controversial issues without necessarily exercising their power of reasoning.
I believe the findings also have implications - and not very favorable ones - in the sphere of interpersonal relationships. Yes, it may be nothing that we - at least those of us not in the habit of brushing unpleasant realities under the carpet - didn't know before. Nevertheless, it confirms what we may be loathe to admit concerning the way we often relate to other people.
This was the experiment. Prior to the 2004 American presidential election, a group of Kerry supporters and a group of Bush supporters were each given six statements by their candidate. Next they were given pieces of information that documented a blatant contradiction between their candidate's first statement and his subsequent words or deeds.
At that point, the subjects were asked to consider the apparent discrepancy between their candidate's initial statement and the second statement and behavior, and to rate the degree of contradiction involved. Finally they were given a third statement that might reconcile the first and second pieces of information, and asked to reconsider the degree of contradiction involved.
While being presented with these tasks, the subject's brains were being monitored by magenetic resonance to determine what areas of the brain were most active.
The investigators found that the presentation of the information raising questions about the honesty or consistency of the subject's favored candidate triggered no activity in the areas of the brain normally associated with reasoning. Instead a network of emotional circuits lit up.
When the third statement, offering a possible reconciliation of the first two, was presented, the brain cricuits that regulate negative emotions such as sadness and disgust shut down. On the other hand, those involved in behavior reward were activated, in a manner comparable to that seen in drug addicts after receiving a dose.
"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," explains project leader Drew Westen. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."
"Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally based judgements when they have a vested interest in how to interpret the facts," concludes Westen. And apparently, intelligence had no impact on the subject's responses.
We all have our natural inbuilt biases, which are an inevitable handicap to us in our pursuit of truth. That is, if the truth is important to us at all! Our biases affect us in our dealings with our fellow human beings in various ways.
So much has been written about one particular form of pathological bias. I refer to the classical delusional syndrome of the woman, for example, who marries or forms a close emotional bond with an habitual drunkard, hardened drug addict or "professional" philanderer, secure in the unshakeable conviction that she'll reform him.
The opposite extreme
Sad, but what concerns me more is the opposite extreme!
You have a neighbor, or perhaps she's a fellow worker in the office. Admittedly , you've never had very much to do with her, but from the little bit of contact you've had up to now, you know a few things with absolute certainty. She's grumpy, she's rude, she's a miser, she's a sourpuss, she's a hater of humankind. Well, okay...if that's exaggerating a little, she certainly hates you!
Then she knocks on your door, or pitches up at your desk. She's carrying a beautiful bouquet of flowers, which she presents you with the warmest, most sincerest, of smiles. She's been disturbed, she says, by the negative vibes she feels whenever she crosses your path, and wants to assure you of her esteem and best intentions...
What to you do now? Persuade yourself she's putting up one hell of a big act?
Woe to the misery we needlessly and throughtlessly inflict upon others! Woe to the misery we needlessly inflict upon ourselves!
Labels: interpersonal relationships