Studies on Republicans vs. Democrats: The Implications for Business Decision Making

Brain scans reveal that staunch members of both parties ignore evidence that puts their own candidate in a bad light. What is worse is that they even show brain characteristics common in drug addicts.

Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects' brains were monitored while they pondered.

The results were announced today.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

So what does that mean for "office politics?" You are a manager. Three subordinates provide ideas for a solution to a vexing problem. Do you choose the best idea, or do you choose the idea submitted by the person you like the most? Of course you are unbiased. We all believe we are. But this study would imply that sometimes we aren't, and we don't even realize it.

The first question is for me is, how do we avoid this problem? I think being aware of the potential is a good start. Ask if it is possible that your friendship with a co-worker is influencing the decision. Feedback from unbiased parties will also help. Find people that aren't affected by the consequences of the decision.

The more interesting question, in my opinion, is this – what do you do if you are the victim of this issue? Can you bring it to light in a way that doesn't make you the bad guy? It won't work to say "you only picked his idea because you liked him more." Actually, even implying that in a round-about way will problemably get you a nasty label at work. The only solution I can think of is to accept it and try to be a little more pre-emptive next time. But if any of you have better ideas, I'm all ears (or eyes, I guess, since you will have to leave them in the comments).

Also check out the Critical Thinking Guide for Managers from ChangeThis.

  • It’s not clear whether this effect is measuring *personal* likes and dislikes, or *allegiance to ideas*. That is: if you strongly believe the Gerbilator market has a lot of potential, and a subordinate you really like tells you that he thinks the Gerbilator business sucks…then will you be open to the suggestion because you like the guy, or closed to it because you’ve already mentally decided in the other direction?

    I suspect that it’s more idea-related than people-related.

  • The first step for a vexing pRoblem is to be sure you are close (or right on) the root cause.

    The fact is managers go from recognizing something needs to change to changing something faster than they should. It’s an by-product of the pace of business combined with the fact that 90% of all managers don’t keep track of the results of their decisions and the path they took to land on their decision.

    Toyota found that it was best to do a search for root causes to solve pRoblems faster and avoid a long chain of do-overs.

  • This study is lacking what the brain scans look like when the test subject is forming the strongly held opinions (long before the point of this study). The prez debates are not the format for this study because strong Republicans and strong Democrats already know the campaign speal of each candidate long before they reach the debates.

  • Rob

    Nice point. Your comment makes me wonder if there is an amplifying effect in politics. You like the party, thus you like the candidate, thus you like the party…

    Now I wonder if that would carry over to business decisions. I think it would be less common because business people and decisions don’t usually fall into such sharp ideological divisons. Knowing how someone thinks on one political issue can frequently predict where they stand on many other issues. I’m not sure it happens to the same degree in business.

  • pRobably doesn’t happen in business to the same extent that it does in politics. I do think, however, that the following tends to happen:

    Many managers tend to have too much allegiance to the function in which they came up: ie, a general manager who grew up in sales may still tend to be biased in favor of a sales viewpoint, even though he now is responsible for sales, engineering, manufacturing, etc…and similarly with a GM who grew up in engineering.

    This preference is likely to be reinforced…the former sales VP who is now business unit GM finds that the new sales VP tends to agree with him, so he likes that VP more, which in turn predisposes him toward still more agreement with that particular individual….

  • I see every bit as much a division in business beliefs as I do in political beliefs.

    There are many “red state / blue state” topics among managers. And you can make businesspeople just as angry questioning their business beliefs as you can discussing their knee jerk views on gun control or George W. Bush.

  • Bill


    A while back I posted saying Michael Crichton was in error. Now when I receive the Acton Institute, the Catholic approach to captialism and free markets, the booklet states “father of the techno-thriller,” Harvard M.D. and winner of an Emmy, a Peabody, and Writer’s Guild of America …ER. Crichton has recently given his voice to the debate on environmentalism, declaring that “…the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens ofmillions of poor people, mostly children…” While the institute has criticized the ban from a moral point of view, Crichton does so on the basis of science.” Does Dr. Crichton practice medicine, science or writing thrillers and novels? When you said eyes and ears, what happened to your other senses, and then some? What would this say about the Institute and have you ever read any studies about DDT through the ecosystem or know the dynamics of ecological thinking?

  • Rob

    I can see some of that attitude. I’m sure you have seen some people heavily favor strategy and discount execution.

    I think that last topic is worth of an entire post. Can I look for it on Photoncourier?!

  • Rob…I touched on the “functional chauvanism” thing a while back, here

    The study results put an interesting twist on it.