Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Media and the Average American

I heard something on, I'm not sure, probably NPR. that made sense. It didn't reassure me of our future, but it helped explain some of the more inexplicable American trends.

The story was about the process by which people make up their minds on political and social issues. Here's how it works:

  1. Depending upon the opinions of those around them and what "serious" media stories they hear, they take a position.
  2. They know that to really know if that position is backed up by the facts, they'd have to read at least ten related things.
  3. They don't have the time, nor the inclination, so they don't really know how to back up their stance.
  4. People who decide on serious issues in this manner hold onto them with a fierceness that people who are more research-oriented.

This makes so much sense to me, and gives me much more sympathy for so many people whose strong ideas are contraindicated by available documentation.

In a related story first published in The New Republic and excerpted in Science Blogs--Pure Pedantry (definitely worth a visit for insights you don't normally run across) is a concept related to my thesis:

Is there something intrinsically reductive or fatalistic in connecting political values to brain functioning? No more so than ascribing them to race or economic background, which we happily do without second thought. Isn't it more dehumanizing to attribute your beliefs to economic conditions outside your control? At least your brain is inalienably yours -- it's where the whole category ''you'' originates. No one denies that social conditions shape political values. But the link between the brain and the polis is still uncharted terrain. Prozac showed us that the slightest tinkering with brain chemistry could have transformative effects on a person's worldview. Who is to say those effects don't travel all the way to the voting booth?

This makes sense. We're hardwired for so many things, down to how many rings we like to wear that it seems entirely logical that our political inclinations would be hardwired too, regardless of the facts on the ground, or the airwaves.

Another post on the same blog supports the "political" brain:

Do liberals ''think'' with their limbic system more than conservatives do? As it happens, some early research suggests that Armey might have been on to something after all. As The Times reported not long ago, a team of U.C.L.A. researchers analyzed the neural activity of Republicans and Democrats as they viewed a series of images from campaign ads. And the early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a ''Democrat brain'' was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence: either the Bush ads that featured shots of a smoldering ground zero or the famous ''Daisy'' ad from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign that ends with a mushroom cloud. Such brain activity indicates a kind of gut response, operating below the level of conscious control.
You can read the entire column in the New York Times.

If this knowledge were widespread, I wonder if we'd be gentler or harsher on those with whom we disagree. I wonder.

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