In October, Nature Neuroscience reported a study implying that politically conservative Americans have a harder time acting against habit than their liberal peers.

In these experiments, the subjects were asked to perform a monotonous, habit-forming task: pushing a button in response to a frequent “GO” cue. Every once in a while, a “NO GO” cue would prompt the subjects to act contrary to their newly formed habit. Subjects who considered themselves politically conservative made more mistakes in response to the “NO GO” cue than their liberal peers.

Furthermore, liberal brains produced a more robust response to habit-challenging cues in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region involved in decision making.

What do we do with these findings? Not much. Establishing correlation between local brain activity, behavior in simple tasks or lifestyle choices is only a first step in formulating more general theories for the biological basis of cognition and behavior.

Still, I will surely use this little study to poke fun at my conservative friends, “Ah, you are just having a hard time responding to conflicting stimuli —”

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emotional voters

2008/02/03

Many recent editorials have reported, some with surprise and indignation, that voters rarely base their decisions on rational reasoning about the outcomes of their choices, e.g. NY Times: How voters think. Indeed many studies indicate we base our choices on little analysis of pros and cons. Instead we fit our intuitive perception of the candidate into our own highly stylized narrative of history. Furthermore, our voting decision is made for us subconsciously and we only justify our decision using rational arguments. This decision can be easily influenced and manipulated, which explains why Americans have consistently voted against their personal and national interests.

Losing a common national story can be detrimental. American neoconservatives believe that the Soviet Union collapsed because Ronald Reagan outspent the Soviets on weapons and because Charlie Wilson gave rocket-propelled grenades to the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. As an eyewitness of those events, I dismiss that nonsensical opinion. The Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviet people lost their uniting inspirational narrative, their ethos, or heroism systems.

Thus the challenge for an effective politician is not to flaunt his management skills but to weave a unifying and elevating narrative for all of us: a stylized story that can be turned into a song or a legend to inspire greatness and good will. Great politicians are not managers, they are visionaries and prophets. In Ernest Becker’s parlance, we need a system of heroism, a self-fulfilling illusion of greatness and purpose.

America’s greatest challenge is that we now have several conflicting narratives. The influential evangelical minority sees current historic events as a page in the great eschatological drama of Christianity: the fight of good with evil ushering the return of the savior of mankind. They fit candidates into their story and see something different from those who hold more reality-based views. The neoconservative movement and President Bush’s cohorts in particular have latched onto that apocalyptical narrative seemingly unable to conceive of more enlightened and encompassing narratives.

The challenge for a new political movement is to create a narrative of us as a nation. I am somewhat partial to the
foundational principles of the republic and I think they still have lots of underutilized potential. I miss E pluribus unum as our guiding motto and all men and women created equal with certain inalienable rights as our defining ideal where all means all.

Although I respect the programs and contributions of several of the current presidential candidates, I only see two who inspire: Ron Paul and Barack Obama. Both create a unifying compelling narrative for our country while others are busy touting their managerial skills and personal qualities. Ron Paul and Barack Obama come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but I am drawn to support them, which must further prove how little I myself rely on rational analysis of my choices đŸ™‚ Would it look odd to put both bumper stickers on my car? Would some of you understand me?

Which candidate’s political platform can be turned into a genuinely electrifying song like this one for Barak Obama?

While educating the electorate about policy is extremely useful, we need to accept ourselves as emotional beings. To act, we must feel. We must have a compelling narrative to inspire us to greatness together. I think there is hope.