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Archive for Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Group’s findings on political talk: Louder isn’t better

K.C. firm discusses results from focus groups at Dole Institute of Politics

September 28, 2011

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If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you might not remember the quiet, sensible-sounding person who spoke for the allotted two minutes. But the person who ranted, raved and made a scene probably left an impression.

That’s a problem, say members of Kansas City’s Consensus consulting firm, who spoke Tuesday night at the Dole Institute of Politics, 2350 Petefish Drive.

The nonprofit group shared findings from 20 focus groups, conducted in Lawrence and Kansas City, that asked politically diverse citizens to identify gripes they had with political discourse.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from politically, you have the same complaint about public life,” said Dan Bloom.

Members of the tea party, the NAACP and Johnson County’s MainStream Coalition all had similar complaints: Those with the loudest voices often dominate a debate, the line between fact and opinion is too often blurred, and it seems public officials only seek the public’s opinions after a decision has been made.

“People (feel they) have lost their ability as citizens to make decisions because there are these experts who seem to know so much more than they do,” said Mary Jo Draper, another member of Consensus.

She said focus groups revealed people also feel frustrated by the setup of public meetings. Podiums and fences dividing public officials from citizens give the impression of a divide, and that’s not conducive to an open dialogue.

Consensus said the focus group results not only revealed complaints but also suggestions to improve public discourse. The group said citizens have a responsibility for taking ownership of democracy and to become active and educated on the issues.

“People told us they want to sit down with people they don’t agree with, and they want to understand why people think what they think,” Draper said. “Those values that they bring.”

The group also recommended ditching “democracy by decibels,” giving those with the loudest voices the most attention.

Jennifer Wilding of Consensus encouraged audience members to reach out to public officials and initiate a conversation about changing public discourse.

She said public officials should actively recruit people for public meetings and include them in decision-making process early on, not just once a decision has been narrowed down to two or three choices.

“A few simple, practical changes can make a huge difference in the way we involve the public in public life,” said Wilding.

Comments

Paul R Getto 2 years, 6 months ago

Good points here, but we still seem to think politics is based in information, not belief. The current political scene should disabuse us of this notion. Read--The Believing Brain: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths, by Micheal Shermer, Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2011. from pp. 259-261 === Then note this quote:

The confirmation bias is particularly potent in political beliefs, most notably the manner in which our belief filters allow in information that confirms our ideological convictions and filters out information that dis-confirms these same convictions. This is why it is so easy to predict which media outlets liberals and conservatives choose to monitor.

We now even have an idea of where in the brain the confirmation bias is processed thanks to an fMRI* study conducted at Emory University by Drew Westen.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing a brain scan, thirty men—half self-described “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments of the candidates, Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. Of course. But what was especially revealing were the neuroimaging results: the part of the brains most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions, and the anterior cingulate cortex—our old friend the ACC, which is so active in patternicity processing and conflict resolution. Interestingly, once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable, their ventral striatum—a part of the brain associated with reward—became active.

In other words, instead of rationally evaluating a candidate’s positions on this or that issue, or analyzing the planks of each candidate’s platform, we have an emotional reaction to conflicting data. We rationalize away the parts that do not fit our preconceived beliefs about a candidate, then receive a reward in the form of a neurochemical hit, probably dopamine. Westen concluded: "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including the circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until then get the conclusions they want, and then get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

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