Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Cognitive Dissonance of Zealous Republicans

In a remarkable preliminary study presented at the 2009 Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, scientists at Emory University reported that Republicans were less disgusted by images of torture and human rights violations -- i.e., the infamous Iraq prison photos from Abu Ghraib -- than were Democrats (Hamann et al., 2009). Furthermore, the degree of self-reported arousal while viewing the photos was inversely related to the zealousness of support for Bush and Cheney. The authors speculated that this result may reflect the cognitive dissonance necessary for ardent Republicans to blindly support their cause. In addition, neuroimaging results indicated that for the comparison of Iraq prison photos vs. neutral control photos, the insular cortex was less active in Republicans than in Democrats. This brain region is implicated in interoceptive awareness of bodily states (Craig, 2009), and is responsive to scenes and expressions of disgust (Stark et al., 2007).

These findings are very interesting in light of a 2008 Science article by Oxley et al. (summarized in Conservatives Are Neurotic and Liberals Are Antisocial):
I'm sure you've seen the deluge of articles in the popular press saying that social conservatives are great big scaredy cats when it comes to loud noises and aversive pictures...

Newsweek: Spiders, Maggots, Politics

"...in the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may =spiders = gay marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces."
Or as Oxley et al. explained in their abstract:
...individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.
That paper was not without its problems, however, as described in my earlier blog post. Nonetheless, the new observations of Hamann et al. are striking: rabid Bush/Cheney fans showed reductions in
both subjective and FMRI-based aversive responses to Iraqi prison photos... in part because of cognitive dissonance elicited by the conflict between support for partisan policies and aversion while viewing consequences attributed to those policies.


Craig AD. How do you feel--now? The anterior insula and human awareness. (2009). Nat Rev Neurosci. 10:59-70.

Hamann S, Blagov P, Harenski K, Kilts C, Westen D (2009). Political Party Affiliation Affects fMRI Responses to Emotional Social Stimuli. 15th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping. 230 M-PM.

Oxley DR, Smith KB, Alford JR, Hibbing MV, Miller JL, Scalora M, Hatemi PK, Hibbing JR. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science 321:1667-70.

Stark R, Zimmermann M, Kagerer S, Schienle A, Walter B, Weygandt M, Vaitl D. (2007). Hemodynamic brain correlates of disgust and fear ratings. Neuroimage 37:663-73.

And as ye would that men should do to you,
do ye also to them likewise.
-Luke 6:31

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At June 26, 2009 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 28, 2009 6:21 PM, Anonymous CigarShrink said...

There are lots of problems with this study, not least of which is generalizing supposed findings about "rabid supporters" of a particular politician to an entire political group.

"Rabid supporters" of the current administration seem to demonstrate an alarming willingness to overlook serious problems with their politician of choice as well.

Studies to support the idea of this as a generalized concept will not be forthcoming, however, because academics will not even attempt to verify it when applied to supporters of Mr. Obama.

At June 29, 2009 1:54 PM, Anonymous CHCH said...

Mike - Bias is just about the most inflammatory statement you can make about a scientist. Had the researchers found the opposite, they probably would have published that - would it be more useful if it had overturned a stereotype than having supported it? Both outcomes are useful, perhaps even particularly the latter one given that the word "stereotype" often connotes an incorrect generalization, whereas in this case the stereotype appears to be accurate.

As for the cognitive dissonance interpretation, I think it's actually quite fair. The other one that comes to mind is that repubs are sociopaths. Which seems more fair to you, and more importantly, how would you explain the results?

At June 29, 2009 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 30, 2009 5:32 AM, Blogger Geekwad said...

If you don't assume bias; if you don't assume that they chose to use democrat and republican supporters and republican party issues to make a political point; it makes pretty good sense. I don't think they are trying to show that one group is fundamentally different than another. It would have worked just as well or perhaps better if there happened to have be an unpopular Democratic president with unpopular policies and graphic results. But this is the situation we have, and it's a very rich one for this sort of test. There was nothing like this from the last several presidential terms. It's a good opportunity for study.

Perhaps it is easier for me to see it from that perspective because I'm not an American.

At June 30, 2009 7:35 AM, Anonymous CHCH said...

Mike - I think I actually agree with your basic issue, which is that this study was clearly more oriented towards political issues than scientific ones. If it had been the latter, they would probably have done something like try to show a double dissociation (e.g., showing republicans and democrats pictures of long wellfare lines, abortion clinics, etc). As it stands, maybe republicans just activate insula less in general, which they seem to report.

But there are also so-called "problems" that are really just parts of the method. Their method defines what they study, so saying a different method would be better is often no different than saying you would have done a different kind of study. For example, they use self-identified republicans and democrats - maybe you're interested in self-identification issues or issue-defined political orientation. Fine, but that's a different study. They performed their study in the current political climate - maybe you're interested in how the political climate affects these phenomena. Again, fine, but that's a different study. These aspects of their method, and the resulting limitations in the way the results can be interpreted, would almost certainly be discussed in their real report of their findings. I do agree that these kinds of "interpretability limitations" are not front-and-center in the current short report. This likely reflects at least the short report format and perhaps also the fact that the results are *consistent with* previous evidence.

At June 30, 2009 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 30, 2009 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 30, 2009 9:51 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

There have been a number of interesting points in this comment thread, so thanks to all for your contributions. Just to reiterate, these results are preliminary -- from a poster at the HBM conference last week -- but with a publicly available abstract (so I don't think I'm violating any blogging/journalistic rules by writing about it). That said, I was very surprised when I saw the Abu Ghraib photos used as stimuli in an fMRI study. The Emory IRB did not have an issue with that, apparently.

My (uninformed) guess about the poster is that the data might have been collected at the same time as the authors' 2006 paper (which they cite in the online HBM abstract):

Westen, D (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an FMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 1947-1958.

I say this because the participants in both cases appeared to be 15 male Democrats and 15 male Republicans who identified as "committed Republicans or Democrats." The 2006 paper also states they "conducted all screening and scanning from late August through early October 2004." The photos of Democratic politicians in Expt. 1 included Kerry and Edwards (not Obama and Biden). Therefore, if this is the case, initial disclosure of the photos was only a few months prior in April 2004, and Bush's approval rating was still OK (between ~41-50%, see this interactive graphic). And obviously, he was re-elected in November 2004.

As far as having an overt political agenda, the last author (Drew Westen) wrote a book, The Political Brain, that received an endorsement from Howard Dean. He also has his own consulting firm. I didn't know any of this until now, when I just looked it up. Political psychology is not my field... I was however familiar with the work of the first author (Stephan Hamann) who studies the amygdala and does not have an overt political bias.

Mike - I appreciate your initial compliment on having good blog, but I think you're wrong that "no one is going to read this comment anyway." Yeah, it's a "neuroscience CRITIC blog" but a lot of people in the field do read it!

At July 02, 2009 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic, but relevant to understand the mindset of some of the soldiers who actually were involved: check out the documentary "Standard Operating Procedures".

It's difficult not to feel somewhat sympathetic about some of them.

At August 01, 2009 6:33 PM, Blogger Helen Krummenacker said...

I agree with the person who suggests a like experiment with photos of fetal remnants to Republican vs Democratic supporters, or more specifically, to pro-choice/anti-choice advocates. I think the experiment covered here points to an ability to deliberately reduce reaction to politically charged disgust, and a further experiment would add data.

My suggestion would be that the disgust reaction is supported or tied to related issues; Abu Gharib abuses cause more disgust than more war footage, because people respond to the idea of deliberate violence on a helpless person as worse than collatoral damage or fighting armed enemies. Contrarily, for some people, the disgust reaction is reduced due to a trust in the accused-- that they must have a reason, and therefore the abuses are not immoral.
For a anti-abortion advocate, a fetus is an innocent human life. For a pro-choice advocate, a fetus is a potential life-- but because there is trust in the women making the decision, seeing the bloody debris suggests anacephalia, pre-eclampsia, and other such medical life-threatening issues that are the sole cause of legal late term abortions. It thus becomes disgusting only in the same way as an appendix is disgusting.
Frankly, I think trusting women who want to save their own lives or avoid a stillbirth makes more sense than trusting the moral judgment of soldier-prison-guards (Stanford prison experiment, anyone?), but that's not a neurology issue.


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