If reading the day's headlines makes you shake your head, research into what makes people tick may offer partial relief, or at least some explanation.

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If reading the day’s headlines makes you shake your head, research into what makes people tick may offer partial relief, or at least some explanation.

This being an election year, I got excited seeing a study investigating how the brain decides whether to sell out.

You should know first that studies mentioned in this column have been of necessity abridged, abbreviated and possibly abused, though I hope not too much of the later.

Emory University neuroscientists had subjects declare their position on lists of statements that draw on a person’s values, such as are you a tea drinker, do you approve of gay marriage, are you pro choice? Researchers then offered people up to $100 to sign a declaration on a selected issue in which they would agree to the position opposite their original choice. People took the money when the statement was about lesser values, but not when it involved something that was, for the person, what researchers called a sacred value. That was especially true when the statement included an idea that made the subject feel revulsion.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see what was going on in the heads of volunteers. The untouchable beliefs lit up areas of the brain involved in rules-based, right-or-wrong processing, while values that could be compromised mostly activated the areas where the brain makes cost versus benefit analyses. The strongly held values also activated the brain’s emotion-processing area.

Knowing strong beliefs are linked to emotions helps explain what’s going on in the brains of people who are drawn to Newt Gingrich’s open anger, or others who are miffed by President Obama’s apparent detachment when addressing issues people care about deeply. That particular study is part of a line of research into the biology of social conflict.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln monitored people while they viewed a mix of pleasant and unpleasant images. Conservatives had the strongest reaction to unpleasant images and liberals strongly reacted to pleasant images. Each orientation influences the positions and policies people support, and neither leads to a completely accurate view of the world. What’s best for all of us when it comes to making public policy is exchange and compromise, but that’s hard to come by these days.

Brain biology and culture tend to reinforce each other. Who you associate with, the groups you belong to, the things you read or watch on TV shape and strengthen values.

When people who have different tendencies from the start drink only from separate vats of Kool-Aid, the chance of compromise shrinks. As we get a better understanding of the mechanics underlying our politics, maybe we’ll find ways around our divisions.

A German psychologist suggests exposure as a way to dismantle another kind of wall our brains erect. Andreas Beelmann of the Institute for Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University, studied children and found a pattern to their prejudices. From 3 or 4, girls and boys prefer their own sex, and a little later they develop a preference for their own nationality or ethnic group. It’s part of the normal process of identity formation. But it can go wrong when it generates negative attitudes and behaviors toward other groups and when those biases persist into adulthood.

Beelmann focused on finding the right time to intervene to prevent the solidification of prejudice. Normally prejudices peak between 5 and 7, then decline as children learn to distinguish between individuals and groups. Mixing with diverse classmates in elementary school helps the normal process along, as does diverse reading material. He prescribes lots of diversity early in life as an antidote to prejudice.

He found that children from minority groups often follow a different trajectory with regard to ethnicity. They don’t start with negative stereotypes of the majority, in fact, often they hold positive ones because of the higher social status of the majority, but attitudes can turn negative if they experience prejudice as they grow up. The brain is more complex than we imagine, but even small advances in understanding its workings offer hope for bringing more sense to our behavior.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.