Partisan bias could affect the way your brain works

U study will see if partisans process political information in a biased way.

Kathryn Elliott

As the 2012 presidential race heats up, mud will soon be slung, and one University of Minnesota researcher will examine the mental effects of dirty political ads.

A College of Liberal Arts study spearheaded by political science professor John Sullivan will look into what happens in the brains of political activists when viewing negative campaign ads.

With the 2012 electionâÄôs expensive campaigns picking up, Sullivan said thereâÄôs going to be âÄúan incredible avalancheâÄù of attack ads.

Sullivan and his team seek to confirm and expand upon research suggesting that partisans âÄî people who identify with a given political ideology âÄî process political information in a biased manner, as they may be motivated by their emotional response instead of rational decision-making.

In previous MRI studies on negative ads, political information was flashed onto a screen instead of shown as an actual advertisement. In this study, researchers will show subjects 30-second ads attacking Democrats Barack Obama and John Kerry and Republicans John McCain and George W. Bush. These ads will be followed by videos created by the researchers, purportedly from a fact-checking organization, that will partly challenge and partly support the claims in the ads.

The MRI machine canâÄôt read minds, Sullivan said, and his results wonâÄôt be proof of anything.

Rather, his study will use images that are associated with positive or negative emotions like enthusiasm or disgust from the International Affective Picture System database. The researchers hope this will help them classify subjectsâÄô brain activity with more accuracy.

The preparation for clinical trials took more than a year, but the team is finally recruiting independent, right- and left-wing political activists to participate. The fMRI âÄî functional MRI âÄî scanner researchers use, the 3Tesla, is the only one of its kind at the University. It is in such high demand that researchers have to reserve it months ahead.

The Office of the Vice President for Research recently invested $5 million in technology commercialization royalties in âÄúcritical infrastructureâÄù for CLA research. One of the projects funded will be a second 3 Tesla scanner.

A CLA grant will fund the project. Researchers will monitor oxygen flow to the brains of political activists as the subjects view timed videos, starting later this summer at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research.

Political science graduate student Matt Cravens began working on the fact-checking videos in summer 2010. He has written scripts, shot video and cut the results to 20-second clips using editing software. Researchers edit all the videos so theyâÄôre the same length for data consistency.

Anyone who operates the UniversityâÄôs 3 Tesla fMRI scanner must take training in CPR, safety, operations âÄî and even what to do if the MRI reveals a medical problem like a tumor in the research subject. An hour on the scanner costs about $300, Cravens said.

âÄúI was the only social science person there,âÄù Cravens said of his training. âÄúIt puts me very out of my comfort zone.âÄù

Once the data has been collected, a psychology professor will spend months analyzing it.

Sullivan, who has been doing political science research since the 1970s, said it bothers him that negative ads can sometimes âÄúget through to peopleâÄù and change voting behavior even though most voters donâÄôt research whether the adsâÄô claims are true or not.

SullivanâÄôs previous findings suggest partisans have double standards for âÄúfairâÄù when it comes to attacking a candidate.

âÄúPeople can be conscious of their emotions but often theyâÄôre not âÄî theyâÄôre making quick decisions about whether to reject or accept the information,âÄù he said. âÄúIf votersâÄô reactions to campaigns are driven by emotions that arenâÄôt even conscious, there are some serious difficulties.âÄù

Zooming out, Sullivan said that people who study democracies assume that society is driven by thoughtful, rational citizens who can act in everyoneâÄôs best interests.

âÄúEvidence of this kind begins to call that into question,âÄù he said.