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Political Bias and Reasoning

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Dane G. Wendell
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Cognitive neuroscience methods have contributed greatly to our understanding of distinct fast and slow processing systems useful for higher-level cognition. We believe these dual-processes can help explain why political beliefs can make it difficult for politicians to agree on significant policy decisions. While recent research suggests that people have an immediate and intuitive reaction of skepticism to opposing political views, recent neurocognitive research (Amodio et al. 2007) suggests that liberals appear to have a more flexible cognitive style. We designed a novel political belief bias paradigm to test how logical reasoning interacts with strongly held political heuristics. We predicted that liberals would be well suited to suppressing their political beliefs in order to engage in formal logical reasoning compared to political conservatives. Our findings confirm our hypotheses. We found that conservatives show a much greater belief bias effect than liberals when the content of the problem is political. This effect persists even when controlling for level of political knowledge and fluid intelligence, and is not explained by belief strength. Our results suggest that conservatives may have more difficulty inhibiting their fast political knowledge system in order to employ the slow logical reasoning system in the context of political information. In contrast, liberals may have a more flexible cognitive style, allowing them to engage in analytic reasoning more readily. Future studies will use neuroimaging to examine the time course of processing in liberals and conservatives to determine the mechanism responsible for the observed differences.