How is it that even smart people can ignore a pile of evidence that contradicts their deeply-held beliefs. Why is it I get a rush when I’m making fun of a politician I don’t agree with—even if it’s his flubs or quirks I’m mocking, not necessarily his ideas?

Apparently, there’s a chemical reason for this.

According to the research of Drew Western, political partisans—and especially the smart, well-informed ones—not only feel better when their brains downplay contradictory political information, they actually get a little emotional “high” when the brain (unconsciously) rejects evidence that contradicts their deeply held political beliefs. In a series of brain scans of political partisans asked to consider contradictory statements by the politicians they supported, Western found that the brain reverted to the comfort zone of its long-held biases—and doing so actually made people feel good.

From Westen’s book, The Political Brain:

Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased “reasoning.” These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term political junkie. [emphasis added.]

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  • As Westen points out, chemicals in the brain are like drugs, “positive emotions are related to dopamine (a neurotransmitter found in rewards circuits in the brain) and inhibition and avoidance are associated with norepinephrine (a close cousin of the hormone adrenalin, which can produce fear and anxiety.)” The brains of partisans sought good chemicals and avoided bad ones. And faced with contradictory evidence, partisans’ preconceived notions were actually reinforced rather than weakened – which made them feel terrific.

    No wonder my uncle and I just can’t talk politics! And no wonder we keep at it anyway—I admit it, I’ve got a chemical addiction!

    But there’s a larger implication to these findings: Unless we find ways to make our facts, figures, and policy solutions resonate outside the realm of partisanship, they’re likely to bounce right off the brains of those who we’re most trying to reach. In short, we need to find ways to make good ideas feel good too, neurologically speaking.