Wednesday, October 17, 2012


For those of you who don't know, I've decided to channel my passion for politics into a PhD. I've gone back to grad school, folks, and I'm looking at five more years studying politics. Yikes and/or hooray.

I'm primarily interested in political ideology and how people come to believe what they believe. I want to know why people believe in completely separate (and conflicting) versions of reality. I live in a totally different world than Glenn Beck, and I need to understand how and why that happened. I just don't think that the division we're seeing in society today is solvable until we understand why it exists. That answer, for me, lies in three places: frame analysis, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

In political science, frame analysis looks at how political issues are presented, especially in the media, and the effects of this presentation on belief. For example, Jamie Druckman at Northwestern (my academic idol: studies whether people change their political opinions depending on how information is presented to them. If someone gives you news about immigration, for instance, and they first tell you a story about the hardships and eventual triumph of an immigrant, are you more likely to be sympathetic to immigration issues? Well, it turns out you are. And vice versa for negative messaging. This kind of understanding is critical in an age where most people form their political beliefs by watching TV or reading online blogs. How we talk about issues matters. A lot.

This kind of research is what first piqued my interest in cognitive psychology. If we believe certain things based on how issues are presented to us, on what basis do we make political decisions? If our entire understanding of politics is based on information that may be framed in a way to make us believe a certain thing, even if it isn't true, how do we make political decisions? To this end, I am interested in looking at the heuristics (the cognitive "shortcuts" our brains take) involved in political decision-making. It's fascinating to me that rather than weighing the pros and cons of a situation in order to make decisions, which is what we all think we do, people rely on cognitive shortcuts. We make decisions based on the information available to us, based on what we already believe.We make decisions using the automatic functions of our brains, not the deliberative functions. In fact, research shows that our brains actually make decisions up to six seconds before we are even aware of a decision being made!

And this line of research leads me to neuroscience. Ultimately, I want to look inside the brains of people as they process political information, have political discussions, and make political decisions. What's going on up there when we watch Jon Stewart, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or read the New York Times? Depending on our political persuasion, what information are we processing? How does emotion affect which pieces of information we remember (and thus what we can access in the future)? What do our brains look like when we argue with people about politics? Can we map the neural connections involved in political ideology and political decision-making? Do the brains of low-information voters use the same processes as high-information voters? I want to see inside.

So, there you have it. That's basically what I'd like to work on for the foreseeable future. I'm also incredibly interested in open source science and information sharing, so I'll probably write more as I learn more... Stay tuned. This is going to take forever.

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