Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 8, 2006

Put aside partisanship and embrace reason when voting

“You’re too stupid to vote.”

“Thanks for writing about important issues.”

“I have until now considered you one of the few capable thinkers who appears in the Dispatch.”

“Bravo for your article today! It provided much needed balance.”

“You come off as just another agitated liberal. Please keep your arguments together.”

“I like your perspective and your work.”

“I’m a liberal Democrat and your [sic] well on the other side but guess what we both agree on this subject!! How bout that?? Will the earth begin to revolve in the other direction now?”

These are just a few of the reactions my columns have elicited over the years. Readers have found me to be conservative, liberal, brilliant and ignorant.

As an opinion writer and editorial board member, I’m always interested in how to persuade readers. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I’m also interested when readers perceive bias in stories that journalists worked hard to make balanced.

That’s why I was fascinated by a recent Emory University study of brain activity in partisans.

Researchers used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study the brains of “committed Democrats and Republicans” in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election. I suspect that the term “committed” doesn’t mean that researchers selected their partisan subjects from mental institutions.

Each of the partisan participants had to complete a task that required reasoning while the researchers studied their brains using the fMRI to learn what parts of their brains were active while they used logic.

Then, the partisan participants were given unfavorable information about their preferred candidates that they were asked to evaluate.

What happened next is disturbing, but – especially after years in the newspaper industry – not too surprising.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” study lead Drew Westen said in an Emory University press release. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

So, when presented with information that might dissuade them from an already-formed opinion, partisans used the emotional parts of their brains, not the logical parts.

Shankar Vendantam’s July 31 Washington Post article quoted UCLA psychologist Jonah Kaplan: “My feeling is, in the political process, people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision.”

As a reporter, I felt that if I was accused of bias by both sides of a story, I must have done a pretty good presenting it in a balanced way. It’s sort of like negotiations – if everyone walks away unhappy, you’ve probably found a fair settlement.

But as an opinion writer who is trying to influence the debate and convince people to support the same positions that I do, the study results are rather discouraging. In fact, the study makes an opinion writer’s job seem pretty pointless.

One of the reasons that I like comic and pundit Bill Maher so much – even though I don’t always agree with him – is that he emphasizes the importance of evaluating issues based on their merits, not based on the people or parties who support or oppose them. Maher sometimes takes positions that irk the right and sometimes takes positions that irk the left. This happens because his first priority is not party loyalty.

Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger – I didn’t vote for him and often disagree with him – supports redistricting reform, I also support it because I believed that California has a flawed system for drawing Assembly, State Senate and House of Representative district lines.

Even though John Kerry – I did vote for him and often agree with him – opposes same-sex marriage, I support it because I believe it to be a matter of fairness, civil rights, separation of church and state and equal protection under the law.

So let me urge you, when you consider candidates and issues, please delay making decisions, ignore the political parties, special interest groups and candidates who might be backing or opposing them, set aside emotion, and instead, come to conclusions based on sound reasoning and fair evaluation of the facts.

Canadian statesman Alexander Mackenzie said, “Logic sometimes has very little to do with political action.”

Maybe we can change that.



  1. […] the pot. During my decade of opining in print, I’ve tried to evaluate arguments and take stances based on the merits of the issue in question, regardless of how any particular political party or politician […]

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