Do opinion pieces ever change your opinion?
Given the fixity of our partisan beliefs, it's a rare occurrence. Yet history shows that reason and rhetoric can win converts.
Right on, Professor Zimmerman! Keep up the great work!
Wrong again, Professor Zimmerman! Get a real job!
Welcome to the wacky and wonderful world of op-ed writing. For the past decade, I've published two opinion pieces a month in newspapers around the country. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, meanwhile, I've received thousands of e-mail responses from my readers. And here's what I've learned: Opinion pieces rarely change opinions.
If this column confirms what you believed before, you'll praise it. But if it contradicts your preconceived ideas, you'll condemn it. By the end of the column, you'll have pretty much the same viewpoints as you did at the start.
How do I know that? It's not just the unrelenting partisanship of my e-mail correspondents, who almost never admit to a flaw – or a change – in their own ideas.
It's also the conclusion of Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist who conducts brain scans of Democrats and Republicans. No matter what your party, Westen has shown, your brain doesn't let mere facts get in the way of opinions.
When you are confronted with evidence that contradicts your point of view, the parts of your brain that regulate emotion – not reason – light up. And instead of changing your former opinions, you actually experience a happy sensation by rejecting the information that doesn't fit them.
Mr. Westen's research reminds us how little of our political behavior reflects conscious thought, judgment, or deliberation. And he brings us back to the granddaddy of American political commentators, Walter Lippmann, who anticipated Westen's findings nearly a century ago.
As America grew in size and complexity, Lippmann wrote, the average citizen lacked the time, inclination, and ability to understand important public questions.