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Political Views – Nature or Nurture?

August 4, 2011

Do your political views come from thoughtful analysis, media influence, or your DNA?

In a recent post my blog colleague Political Bitch was “pretty sure” her father held a particular view because, “he got [his position] from Fox News because he’s a White man pushing 80…”  Let’s unpack that.

At first, it appears she attributes her father’s position to him being racist, sexist, & ageist – a White man pushing 80.  Or is she simply projecting her own racism, sexism, & ageism onto her dad?  Not enough information to say one way or the other.  Regardless, her opinion would fall into the DNA explanation (he was born that way) for the “White” & “man” aspects, along with a touch of thoughtful analysis considering he’s “pushing 80”.

Additionally, media influence comes into play as her dad is apparently a fan of Fox News.

Therefore, according to Political Bitch, all 3 factors are likely influencing her dad’s view on various issues.

I don’t know whether her dad watches Fox News because he’s a White man (Nature) or because he’s pushing 80 and with age comes experience and thoughtful analysis (Nurture).  If Nature, he didn’t really have any choice – he was born that way.  If Nurture, he chose Fox News based on analysis of his experiences gained over a lifetime – in a word, wisdom.  Her dad believes, rightly or wrongly, that Fox best represents reality as he perceives it, compared to other available sources.

At this point the Plastered Bastard could get all philosophical on you by launching into a dissertation on Freewill vs. Determinism.  Be thankful he’s not sober enough at the moment.

To shed some light on this Nature vs. Nurture dilemma a book by Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, has recently been published.  Shermer is the founder of Skeptic magazine.  Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine has written a nice review.  Since I have yet to read the book, I’ll be quoting from Bailey’s review.

Shermer believes that beliefs come first; reasons second.  Shermer has a belief about beliefs.  We acquire beliefs because our brains naturally “look for and find patterns”.  Once a pattern is found, we “then infuse it with meaning”.  The infused meaning can be true, false, or some combination of the two.  All this seems intuitively correct to the Bastard.

Now here’s the good part… Bailey on Shermer: “Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them.”  I’ll drink to that!

Ignoring information, valid or not, is known as confirmation bias.  The bad news is nobody is completely free from it.  We like to have our personal beliefs (patterns) confirmed by others.  It gives us a certain comfort by reducing anxiety.  Similar to possessing a full bottle of Tokay before a cold night.

And it gets worse:  “When we come across information that confirms what we already believe, we get a rewarding jolt of dopamine”.

On no!  You mean there’s a biological/neurological component cementing our beliefs such that any information to the contrary causes a dopamine withdrawal?  No wonder people get angry and upset when their beliefs are challenged.  It would be like breaking their bottle of Tokay!

Whether Political Bitch’s father possesses a true or false belief is debatable.  What’s not debatable is that whatever we believe is highly resistant to change.  We come by our beliefs by noticing patterns.  And once a pattern is found it tends to stick regardless of opposing facts, much less a stronger argument.

This isn’t all bad.  Pattern recognition is what distinguishes us from other species.  It’s necessary for our acquisition of knowledge.  Our brains seem to be hard-wired in this regard.

But our brains are material (hardware).  It’s possible – though anxiety producing – to change our minds (software).  In this we have freewill.  Weather we use our freewill or not is a matter of choice.  A choice that doesn’t “just happen” but one that requires a conscious effort.

Evolution is a process of physical change over time.  It’s automatic, mechanical, habitual.  Spiritual evolution is a process of conscious change over time.  It’s contemplative, meditated, deliberate.

Which have you chosen?

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