10/10/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Political Neuroscience and the Compromiser's Dilemma

"Listen, if it takes a shutdown of government to stop the runaway spending, we owe that to our children and our grandchildren." -- Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX)

On the eve of the government shutdown, Rachel Maddow (reported here at Raw Story) laid out a litany of similar Republican comments made en route to the 2010 midterm elections. As former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough repeatedly stated on Morning Joe, this Government Shutdown is the Republicans' fault. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner pretty much admits it in this statement:

"...I and my members decided that the threat of ObamaCare & what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand and we took a stand."

It is easy to see how the success of ObamaCare is an existential threat for the GOP. Since Republicans' House majority was won in 2010 on a platform of being anti-ObamaCare, the success of ObamaCare and the subsequent increase in public evaluations would mean that a majority of the public approves of the very thing that allowed the GOP to win the House in the first place. In their fear of its eventual success, Republicans are (to quote Jonathan Chait) attempting to forestall "the onset of universal health insurance," political behavior that "is alien to every other major conservative party in the industrialized world."

Is it the case, however, that Republicans privately believe that what they are doing is wrong and desire a course correction by passing a clean Continuing Resolution and raising the debt limit?

Neuroscientific research on reinforcement learning would suggest just the opposite. In a 2009 study on social conformity, Klucharev et al. used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess neuronal responses when subjects failed to conform to a group norm. They focused on two brain areas, the first being the Rostral Cingulate Zone (RCZ), which is activated following "error-related responses" and "indicates the need for adjustments." The second brain area was the nucleus accumbens (NAc), which is activated in anticipation of or following rewarding stimuli.

Results: They found that whenever subjects' personal ratings of stimuli conflicted with their their peer groups' ratings, there was greater RCZ activation (meaning their brain interpreted their personal rating as an error) and less NAc activation (meaning they felt the discrepancy would not garnish social rewards). This resulted in subjects changing their answers to align themselves with the group. (Note: a brief review on conformity in the brain can be found here).

Put succinctly, (1) our brains tell us that we have done something wrong if we give an answer we believe to be right but that differs from our in-group, and (2) our brain is okay with us giving an incorrect response if being wrong means we will be accepted by the group.

While these results succeed in advancing the findings of Solomon Asch's famous conformity experiments by utilizing fMRI to show how the brain incentivizes certain responses, we must consider another level of incentives to fully understand the implications of these findings for political behavior: polarization at the constituent-level.

Ideological Geography and Asymmetric Polarization

As noted by the Cook Political Report, there are fewer swing seats in the House of Representatives (164 in 1998 vs. 90 in 2013), meaning that most members are in safely red or blue areas. With America's ideological geography drawn in such a way, most members' incentive is to be more extreme rather than try and be centrist. This is especially true for the Republican Party, as David Roberts discusses in his 2012 article "The left's gone left but the right's gone nuts." (Note: 33% of House Republicans were in Clinton districts during the 1995 Government shutdown vs. only 7% in Obama districts in 2013.)

What this has led to is an environment where Republicans are more worried about Primary elections than General elections, changing their incentives in such a way that they are more motivated to move further to the right to avoid a Primary contest than to move to the center to appeal to a General election audience. The 2012 election was a national example of this phenomenon as Mitt Romney moved far to the right during the Primary & then attempted to etch-a-sketch his way back to the center during the General election (of course, if America was truly as center-right as Republicans suggest then Mitt wouldn't have had to revert so abruptly).

False equivalency narratives insult the erudition of anyone remotely paying attention to what has been going on. There is no equivalent of the rigidity-of-the-right phenomenon on the left -- there is no Occupy Wall Street caucus demanding a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (something far worse than giving people health care) in exchange for a functioning economy that pays its debts.

What's troubling is that the politicians in these ideologically homogenous districts can act with impunity, as long as their actions are not moderate (you read that correctly -- the adaptive goal for them is to NOT be moderate). If they go on media and say that ObamaCare has death panels, their brain will tell them they did something good, even though it is a lie. If they told the truth & said ObamaCare doesn't have death panels, their brain would tell them they did something wrong.

Here's the really twisted part (as if it isn't bad enough already): their brain would be right to tell them they did something wrong by telling the truth, because it increases the chances they will get embroiled in a Primary battle from the right.

So here's the Compromiser's Dilemma for Republicans: do you compromise for the good of the country now and risk being replaced by a more extreme right-winger during midterms, or become more extreme yourself by obstructing everything in order to prevent anything? Do you care about having a stellar NRA scorecard, anti-ObamaCare scorecard, and anti-immigrant scorecard, or do you want to earn a stellar Compromise scorecard by doing what's right for the country?

Indeed, it appears that America is living with a Republican party like a passenger riding in a car with two accelerators and no brake pedal. If any House Republican (in a politically homogeneous district) puts the brakes on while driving the party line & goes towards the center, it will only ensure that they will be replaced by a faster driver.

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