This Is Your Brain On Politics

Ever wonder why fear-mongering seems to work so well at the polls—while appeals to reason often leave the electorate cold? A new book applies neuroscience to politics to figure out why the Democrats struggle to push the buttons in voters' brains.

Do you remember when candidate George W. Bush berated Al Gore during the 2000 presidential debates for alleged funny business in his fund-raising? Bush said, "You know, going to a Buddhist temple and then claiming it wasn't a fund-raiser isn't my view of responsibility." It was a direct attack on the honor of a fellow Southerner, and Gore wasn't taking it. "You have attacked my honor and integrity," the vice president shot back. "I think it's time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character. When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, you were talkin' real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn't have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honor, you put some poor Texas millworker's kid on the front line in your place to get shot at. Where I come from, we call that a coward.

"When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking yourself and your family into the ground. Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.

"When I was serving in the U.S. Senate, your own father's government had to investigate you on the charge that you'd swindled a bunch of old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. Where I come from, we call that crooked. So governor, don't you ever lecture me about character. And don't you ever talk to me that way again in front of my family or my fellow citizens."

Don't remember that reply? There's a reason: Gore never said anything like it. Challenged by Bush on the temple fundraiser, he instead sidestepped the attack with a lofty but wimpy declaration about wanting "to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person." The response-that-wasn't-but-should-have-been is the work of psychology researcher Drew Westen of Emory University, one of many "what ifs" in his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." After reading them you won't be surprised that Westen has been approached by the campaigns of "several" Democratic hopefuls (he is too discrete to say which) for advice on how to make use of findings about how the brain operates in the political arena. Why aren't Republicans beating a path to his door? Because the GOP has already mastered the dark art of psych-ops—of pushing the right buttons in people's brains to win their vote.

Westen's thesis is simple. "A dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work." That's true when it comes to choosing a significant other, buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known this for decades. Democrats haven't. Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning—and, often, electoral failure. But by recognizing the strides that neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap into "the emotional brain" that guides most political decisions.

If you think your political decisions are coldly rational, think again. Even when we "rationally" assess a candidate's position on, say, tax policy or immigration, emotions shape our judgment. (In 2000 the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, famously hostile toward federal intervention in state matters, overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore and put the former in the White House. Go figure.) "Behind every reasoned decision is a reason for deciding," Westen writes. "We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger or contempt . . . We do not find policies worth debating if they don't touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families or things we hold dear." Something you "hold dear" can be, for instance, a principled position in favour of sending more troops to Iraq; you can tell yourself that that position resides in an emotion-free zone, but in all likelihood it reflects feelings of pride, fear, commitment and the like—emotions, all.

There is no shame in being motivated by wishes, fears and values. Emotions actually provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior. Neuroscientists find, for instance, that emotions guide moral decisions, and do so pretty well. Although the political brain is an emotional brain, this doesn't mean that voters' basest instincts—racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, xenophobia—are the only or even the principle emotions in play. One can feel good about, say, a ban on capital punishment even if that position also has rational underpinnings.

Because emotions are central to beliefs and values, if an appeal is purely rational it is unlikely to tickle the emotional brain circuits that affect what we do in the voting booth. To the contrary: emotions can trump rationality. "People were drawn to Reagan [in the 1980 presidential race] because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs," Westen writes. "It didn't matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions." The same forces were at work in 2004, when pollsters found that voters in small-town America placed more weight on issues unlikely to directly affect their lives, such as terrorism and violent crime and gay marriage in Massachusetts, than on those that were, such as mine safety. Positions on issues matter to the extent they incite voters' emotions.

Neuroscience research backs up the poll results. When voters are hooked up to brain-imaging devices while watching candidates, it is emotion circuits and not the rational frontal lobes that are most engaged. When voters assess who won a campaign debate, they almost always choose the candidate they liked better beforehand. The rationality circuit "isn't typically open for business when partisans are thinking about things that matter to them," Westen notes. Yet "this is the part of the brain to which Democrats typically target their appeals."

Just as in the imagined response by Gore to Bush's attack on his character, Westen has penned powerful sound bites and mini-speeches that Dems could use to justify their core positions on perennial issues. Abortion, and bills outlawing it (as GOP platforms have long called for) or requiring parental consent? "My opponent puts the rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. . . My opponent believes that if a 16-year-old girl is molested by her father and becomes pregnant, she should be forced by the government to have his child, and if she doesn't want to she should be forced by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his consent." Tougher gun restrictions? How about an ad showing a parade of Arab-looking men walking into a gun store, setting their money on the counter and walking out with three or four semi-automatics each, with this voice-over: "My opponent thinks you shouldn't have to show a photo ID or get a background check to buy a handgun. He thinks anyone who wants an AK-47 should be able to buy one, no questions asked. What's the point of fighting terrorists abroad if we're going to arm them over here?"

Pandering? Maybe. Shades of the first President Bush's infamous race-baiting Willie Horton ad? Probably. Effective? Let's just say that if John Kerry had used Westen's words to attack the Swift Boaters who impugned his war record during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush might be clearing a lot of brush in Crawford these days. There's more—on how Dems can frame affirmative action, flag burning, domestic wiretaps, tax cuts for millionaires, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage to engage the voters' political brain. Read "The Political Brain" and you'll understand why Westen is suddenly a very, very popular guy in Democratic campaign circles.