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Your Brain on Politics

Photo of Ramona Palmerio-Roberts and Colleen McDonough
Ramona Palmerio-Roberts (left) and Colleen McDonough (right)
host Your Brain on Politics.


What happens when two psychology professors, one conservative and one liberal, talk politics on college radio? Your Brain on Politics happens.


Since the beginning of October, Dr. Colleen McDonough and Dr. Ramona Palmerio-Roberts have set aside one hour each week to discuss politics on WNUW 98.5, Neumann University radio. They have different views, opposing political philosophies, and yet, they are not at each other’s throats on air. In a refreshing departure from the current political climate of name-calling (she’s crooked vs. he’s crazy), McDonough and Palmerio-Roberts like and respect each other.


“We share a lot of the same beliefs and values,” admits Palmerio-Roberts, a self-described religious liberal. “We just have different views about how to get there.”


McDonough, a moderate conservative, concurs. “Even when we completely disagree, we don’t get mad at each other.”


The psychological underpinning of the show is a shared belief that a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” is causing extreme polarization along political lines. Confirmation bias occurs when people look, almost exclusively, for information that confirms what they already believe. Think of right-wingers who listen only to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, or lefties who tune in solely to Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.


“When you talk about issues with or consume information from people who share the same opinion, you become more entrenched in your views,” says Palmerio-Roberts. The result is an intensifying of the political polarization that adds to the vitriol that has dominated the 2016 elections.


“It’s important to be open to different opinions,” says McDonough. “Often Ramona will say things that make me re-evaluate my position. The result may be to strengthen my belief or make me more willing to modify my initial view.”


Another theme of Your Brain on Politics is the power of the media to influence opinion. Years ago, during the debate about the Affordable Care Act, the professors recall that Fox News consistently emphasized that 90% of Americans already had some form of health insurance (hinting that lack of coverage was a non-issue) while MSNBC stressed that 30 million people were not covered (hinting at a catastrophic situation). With the population of the United States at slightly more than 300 million, both statistics were accurate. It was the media emphasis that influenced viewer opinion, another example of how confirmation bias can polarize political camps.


“The goal of the show” explains McDonough, “is not to change people’s minds but to educate our listeners and help them become critical thinkers.”


Whether the visceral tone of politics in 2016 is caused by the media or whether profit-driven corporations are simply giving consumers what they demand, Palmerio-Roberts is certain that one element absent from the current climate is “healthy objectivity.”


And that’s what Your Brain on Politics is all about.