Baffled By Community Organizing

Bell_brain_cut.jpg First, it appears that hardcore left-wing and hardcore right-wing folks don’t process new data. An fMRI study found that confirmation bias — “whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence” — is real. The study explicitly looked at politics:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men–half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats–were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning–the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and–once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable–the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.

In other words: “‘We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,’” said the study’s leader in an Emory University press release. “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,” Westen said.

So maybe this explains how a party that offered churches and other faith-based organizations who, as far as I know, engage in community organizing to achieve social goals, can attack the idea of community organizing. Now before our more conservative readers jump in, no, I do not have a great example for the left. I am sure it exists. As stated above, BOTH sides engage in this rather poor example of living up to using their brain to process.

If this finding is accurate, where does Orwell’s newspeak fit in?

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Is it that we are subject to these sorts of force-fed, binary positions? Or is it that we are all likely to engage in these behaviors, but it is our duty to stop and think? And in thinking do we seek logical, supported positions, even ones that force us to leave a comfort zone but that may lead to better understanding or do we fake it and rest easy in what we want to hear and know as the fMRI study suggests? I believe that we are capable of breaking these lazy habits. It is not easy and the endeavor never ends. Still I am not sure what else it is we are supposed to be doing if not continually asking questions and engaging with the views we may not like on our way to better understanding.

image source: wikicommons, public domain

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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2 Responses

  1. A.W. says:


    You know it was interesting until you lost me here.

    > So maybe this explains how a party that offered churches and other faith-based organizations who, as far as I know, engage in community organizing to achieve social goals, can attack the idea of community organizing.

    My gosh, you can’t even apply the principles of the information your just pointed out. Hyperpartisanship short-circuits logic. You need to think, sir.

    The republicans didn’t attack it. They just diminished it. there is an important difference. I am sure everyone will say generally community organizing is a good thing, but its really not much to put on a resume when applying for president. Obama would do better to emphasize being a professor, for instance, than that.

    Not to mention that a lot of that organizing was done with that shady outfit, ACORN.

    > As stated above, BOTH sides engage in this rather poor example of living up to using their brain to process.

    Except you are missing something else. “Yes, Virginia, there is a swing vote.” And it might very well be the state of Virginia, although I suspect Pennsylvania is more likely. That is, people who AREN’T reflexively partisan, and gosh, I would wager they engage in that part of the brain involved in reasoning.

    By the way, if you are looking for a democratic example, jeez, the whole palin thing seems like a long version of that. the otherwise liberal people who suddenly say a woman’s place is in the home, or attack someone because their daughter is pregnant. This was done because it was assumed she was for abstinence only sex-ed, but what do you know? It turns out she wasn’t. I even saw an Obama supporter say that if you have grade school children you shouldn’t run for president, ignoring the fact that 1) Palin’s teenage daughter is not in grade school and 2) Obama fits that criteria to a T.

  2. D.B. says:

    A.W., I think assuming that swing voters use reasoning to arrive at their positions is awfully optimistic. There isn’t much evidence that swing voters are smarter than the rest of the country, and polls show most don’t make up their minds until the very last minute. It’s likely they’re still using the emotional portions of their brains, just not in a party-affiliated way — maybe basing their vote on how angry the last attack ad they saw made them.