The Power of Bias
Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta recently devised an interesting experiment to test the reasoning, or the lack thereof, of political partisans.
Prior to the 2004 American presidential election, a group of Kerry supporters and a group of Bush supporters were each given six statements by their candidate. Next they were given pieces of information that documented a blatant contradiction between their candidate’s first statement and his subsequent words or deeds. At that point, the subjects were asked to consider the apparent discrepancy between their candidate’s initial statement and the second statement or behavior and to rate the degree of contradiction involved. Finally, they were given a third statement that might reconcile the first and second piece of information, and asked to reconsider the degree of contradiction involved.
While being presented with these tasks, the subjects’ brains were being monitored by magnetic resonance to determine what areas of the brain were most active. The investigators found that the presentation of the information raising questions about the honesty or consistency of the subject’s favored candidate triggered no increased activity in the brain in areas normally associated with reasoning. Instead a network of emotional circuits lit up.
When the third statement offering a possible reconciliation of the first two was presented, the brain circuits that regulate negative emotions such as sadness and disgust shut down, while those involved in behavior reward were activated, in a manner comparable to that seen in drug addicts after receiving a dose.
Drew Westen, chairman of the clinical psychology department at Emory, described the findings: “It appears that the partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it.”
Intelligence apparently had no impact on the subjects’ responses. Stupid Bush supporters and intelligent Kerry supporters (just kidding) reacted in an identical fashion. As Westen summarized the results, “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally based judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’”
These findings, while admittedly only preliminary, are highly suggestive. For one thing, they provide experimental confirmation of a point emphasized by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler already in the late 1920s, as he confronted the cult of science of his time. Rabbi Dessler taught his students to beware that the conclusions of supposedly objective scientists are often heavily tainted by their prior biases.
Suppose, for instance, a scientist writes that the world about us is the product of purely random events reflecting no guiding purpose, and claims that modern science supports his claim. Even if we grant that this person possesses a keen intellect and is well-educated, writes Rabbi Dessler, we must recognize that his moral character is likely no more than average, and that he has never seriously tackled his own moral failings. When arguing a point upon which depends “whether he will be obliged to struggle constantly with his baser desires . . . or whether he will live with no restraints on those desires other than those he deigns to place on them,” says Rabbi Dessler, no one can “seriously believe that he will arrive at a true conclusion merely by the exercise of his intellectual powers.”
Indeed the Emory findings may help explain a phenomenon that I have long noticed: the curious immunity of many intellectuals to empirical reality.
Intellectuals love theories. They become emotionally invested in those theories, and will defend them long after the contradictions have mounted, as Thomas Kuhn long ago pointed out in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They would rather modify the theory to explain why the emperor appears naked than admit that he has no clothes. Freudianism, for instance, held sway over Western intellectuals for nearly a century, despite the lack of empirical support for either the theory or its efficacy as a therapeutic tool.
The Emory study also helps me better understand the awe I often feel in the presence of those who have had the fortitude to re-examine the emotional core and ask whether it is true – e.g., geirei tzedek, ba’alei teshuva, and even those neo-conservatives whom Irving Kristol famously described as “liberals mugged by reality.” We should feel awe because, as the Emory study makes clear, the power of bias is very strong and receives powerful emotional reinforcement from our brains.
Wafa Sultan, is an Arabic-speaking psychologist, now living in the United States, who had the courage to say openly on Al Jazeera, “The Jews have come through the tragedy [of the Holocaust], and forced the world to respect them with their knowledge, not their terror, with their work, not their crying or yelling. . . . We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church.” Apart from the pure physical bravery involved (Sultan and her family are now in hiding), it is truly wondrous to contemplate someone who has freed herself from the prejudices of the Moslem society in which she was born to such extent.
Finally, the Emory experiment provided me with a renewed appreciation of the “milchemes HaTorah” described by the Gemara in Kiddushin. The chavrusah (study partner) system of learning forces us to subject that which is dear to us – our chiddushim (novellae) – to continual scrutiny. Every time we offer a solution to a particular project, we find sitting across from us a study partner who has no ego invested in our chiddush and will do everything he can to refute it, if he can.
Those who are raised in this system of learning are constantly challenged to overcome the natural bias in favor of our own intellectual progeny, and to pursue truth instead. The training is far from fool-proof. As Rabbi Dessler noted, it can only work in conjunction with rigorous work on our characters as well. But work it does.
Every time a gadol b’Torah [great Torah scholar] stops a shiur [class] in the middle, in response to a student’s question, even though he could have easily found numerous plausible ways to save his chiddush, we are witnessing a rare feat of elevating reason over emotion. Just how rare, Dr. Westen has shown us.
Originally published in Mishpacha, March 22, 2006