Monday, March 12, 2012

Science Finds Humans Resist New Patterns, Outsiders

Science provides evidence that humans are biased against those 1) who are inconsistent and 2) who operate outside our tribe. NPR’s “Morning Edition” recently reported on both findings.

Scientists say we want consistency. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, says our brains don't like inconsistency. The brain has lots of circuits making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day. And Linden says the brain pays special attention to other people, watching out for the veracity, predictability, group spirit and motivations of those around us.

After thousands of years living in groups trying to stay alive, we need to know if the person who helped yesterday might hurt tomorrow. Prediction is so important our brains give us pleasure-inducing dopamine when we guess well. Get it wrong and dopamine drops. So imagine what happens when someone we trust becomes inconsistent. We feel deeply betrayed, and experience hurt similar to physical pain.

That means we want consistent politicians, not those forcing us into painful re-evaluations. And especially not those from the “other side.”

Jamie Barden at Howard University developed a way to test how people make judgments about inconsistent political behavior. He gathered a group of students—both Democrats and Republicans—and told them that their job was to evaluate the behavior of a hypothetical “Mike.”

Students learned that during a political fundraiser Mike had organized, he'd drank too much, drove home, and crashed his fender into a telephone pole. In short, Mike drove drunk. The students then learned that a month later, Mike on the radio delivered a screed about the dangers of drunk driving, saying, “I'm not going to drive drunk and no one else should either.”

The two possible interpretations for Mike's behavior are that a) Mike is a hypocrite or b) Mike has sincerely changed. Barden's study found the preferred interpretation is based on tribe rather than on the facts. Half the time Mike was described to the students as a Republican and half the time he was described as a Democrat. When participants judged a Mike from their party, only 16% called him a hypocrite. Whereas when Mike was from an opposing party, 40% judged him a hypocrite.

Thus tribe clouds our judgments about what is and is not true. And other research shows that though we see bias in our opponents, we believe our judgments to be fact-based. No wonder it’s so hard to bring the two parties together. We are biologically primed to ignore opposing viewpoints and to hold fast to our tribe.

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