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The Political Brain by Drew Westen

  • Newsnight
  • 10 Aug 07, 05:19 PM

The Political Brain by Drew WestenIn The Political Brain Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, examines the role of emotion in determining national politics. Westen looks at how politicians capture the hearts and minds of the electorate and suggests ways in which they might better appeal to voters' brains.

Read the excerpt from the book below, watch the report and interview with Drew Westen on Newsnight, Wednesday 15 August and let us know your thoughts. And don't forget there's plenty of other titles in the Newsnight Book Club.

The following extract is from the book's introduction.

The Partisan Brain

In the final, heated months of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, my colleagues Stephan Hamann, Clint Kilts, and I put together a research team to study what happens in the brain as political partisans—who constitute about 80 percent of the electorate—wrestle with new political information. We studied the brains of fifteen committed Democrats and fifteen confirmed Republicans.2 (We would have studied voters without commitments to one party or candidate as well, but by the fall of 2004, finding people with intact brains who were not already leaning one way or the other would have been a daunting task.)

We scanned their brains for activity as they read a series of slides. Our goal was to present them with reasoning tasks that would lead a “dispassionate” observer to an obvious logical conclusion, but would be in direct conflict with the conclusion a partisan Democrat or Republican would want to reach about his party’s candidate. In other words, our goal was to create a head-to-head conflict between the constraints on belief imposed by reason and evidence (data showing that the candidate had done something inconsistent, pandering, dishonest, slimy, or simply bad) and the constraints imposed by emotion (strong feelings toward the parties and the candidates). What we hoped to learn was how, in real time, the brain negotiates conflicts between data and desire. Although we were in relatively uncharted territory, we came in with some strong hunches, which scientists like to dignify with the label hypotheses. Guiding all these hypotheses was our expectation that when data clashed with desire, the political brain would somehow “reason” its way to the desired conclusions.

We had four hypotheses.

First, we expected that threatening information—even if partisans didn’t acknowledge it as threatening—would activate neural circuits shown in prior studies to be associated with negative emotional states.

Second, we expected to see activations in a part of the brain heavily involved in regulating emotions. Our hunch was that what passes for reasoning in politics is more often rationalization, motivated by efforts to reason to emotionally satisfying conclusions.

Third, we expected to see a brain in conflict—conflict between what a reasonable person could believe and what a partisan would want to believe. Thus, we predicted activations in a region known to be involved in monitoring and resolving conflicts.

Finally, we expected subjects to “reason with their gut” rather than to analyze the merits of the case. Thus, we didn’t expect to see strong activations in parts of the brain that had “turned on” in every prior study of reasoning, even though we were presenting partisans with a reasoning task (to decide whether two statements about their candidate were consistent or inconsistent).

We presented partisans with six sets of statements involving clear inconsistencies by Kerry, six by Bush, and six by politically neutral male figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, William Styron). Although many of the statements and quotations were edited or fictionalized, we maximized their believability by embedding them in actual quotes or descriptions of actual events.

As partisans lay in the scanner, they viewed a series of slides.3 The first slide in each set presented an initial statement, typically a quote from the candidate. The second slide provided a contradictory statement, also frequently taken from the candidate, which suggested a clear inconsistency that would be threatening to a partisan. Here is one of the contradictions we used to put the squeeze on the brains of partisan supporters of John Kerry:

Initial statement (Slide 1): During the first Gulf War, John Kerry wrote to a constituent: “Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition. . . I share your concerns. I voted in favor of a resolution that would have insisted that economic sanctions be given more time to work.”

Contradiction (Slide 2): Seven days later, Kerry wrote to a different constituent, “Thank you for expressing your support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. From the outset of the invasion, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush’s response to the crisis.”

Without some kind of mitigating information, it would be difficult to argue that these two statements are not mutually contradictory (although, as we’ll see, the human brain is a remarkable organ).

After partisans read the first two slides, which presented them with a clear contradiction, the third slide simply gave them some time to stew on it, asking them to consider whether the two statements were inconsistent. The fourth slide then asked them to rate the extent to which they agreed that the candidate’s words and deeds were contradictory, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Bush supporters faced similar dilemmas, such as the following:

Initial statement (Slide 1): “Having been here and seeing the care that these troops get is comforting for me and Laura. We are, should, and must provide the best care for anybody who is willing to put their life in harm’s way for our country.”—President Bush, 2003, visiting a Veterans Administration Hospital. Contradiction (Slide 2): Mr. Bush’s visit came on the same day that the Administration announced its immediate cutoff of VA hospital access to approximately 164,000 veterans .

For the politically neutral figures, the inconsistency was also real, but it was not threatening to partisans of one candidate or the other. Thus, it provided a useful comparison.

Our committed Democrats and Republicans were scanned in the run-up to one of the most polarized presidential races in recent history. So how did they respond?

They didn’t disappoint us. They had no trouble seeing the contradictions for the opposition candidate, rating his inconsistencies close to a 4 on the four-point rating scale. For their own candidate, however, ratings averaged closer to 2, indicating minimal contradiction. Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush. And as predicted, Democrats and Republicans showed no differences in their response to contradictions for the politically neutral figures. Science is an untidy business, and you don’t expect all your hypotheses to pan out. But in this case, we went four for four. The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to “reason” to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints as they do it.

When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, unconscious, or some combination of the two we don’t know.

The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans largely denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate’s words and deeds.

Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly—as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.

But the political brain also did something we didn’t predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term political junkie.4

So what are the implications of this study?

One is pragmatic. If you’re running a campaign, you shouldn’t worry about offending the 30 percent of the population whose brains can’t process information from your side of the aisle unless their lives depend on it (e.g., after an attack on the U.S. mainland). If you’re a Republican, your focus should be on moving the 10 to 20 percent of the population with changeable minds to the right and bringing your unbending 30 percent to the polls. Republican strategists in fact have had no trouble branding Northern Californians and Northeasterners “latte-drinking liberals.” They know their own party’s kitchen doesn’t have room for a latte maker, and that scalding the other side can bring a little froth to the mouths of their own voters.

The implications for Democrats should be equally clear: Stop worrying about offending those who consider Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell moral leaders because their minds won’t bend to the left. Indeed, the failure of the Democratic Party for much of the last decade to define itself in opposition to anyone or anything has created a Maxwell House Majority convinced that the only coffee the Democrats are capable of brewing is lukewarm and tepid—tested by pollsters to insure that it’s not too hot or too strong—and served up with stale rhetoric. And they’re right.

But if we take a step back, and place this study in the context of a growing body of research in psychology and political science, there’s another message in these findings: The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision. The partisans in our study were, on average, bright, educated, and politically aware. They were not the voters who think “Alito” is an Italian pastry, the kind of voters who have raised so many alarm calls among political scientists and pundits.

And yet they thought with their guts.

Rational readers may take solace in noting that in American politics today, partisans are roughly equally split, with a little over a third of voters identifying themselves as Republican and roughly the same percent identifying themselves as Democrats. So they cancel each other out, leaving those in the center to swing elections based on more rational considerations.

But as it turns out, they think with their guts, too. There is, however, a bright side to this story. Most of the time, emotions provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior—including voting behavior—although the needle sometimes takes a couple of years to move. What led voters to demand a change of course on Iraq in November 2006 was not that they had new information. They had new emotions. The compass shifted from nationalistic pride and hope to anger, concern, and a rising crest of resignation. “Stay the course” made little sense in light of this emotional shift. We can’t change the structure of the political brain, which reflects millions of years of evolution. But we can change the way we appeal to it.

From THE POLITICAL BRAIN: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen. Copyright © 2007 by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 07:44 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • Michael McGuire wrote:

Well it's not exactly rocket science is it? . There are those (in the UK) who will always vote Tory or Labour or even dare I say it even Lid-Dem whatever comes from the mouth of the leader and each election is determined by the "Floating voter" whoever he or she may be.
I mean could you possibly imagine a situation where the US bible belt were to vote for a gay canditate?

I suggest what is being observed (party allegiance - voter choice) is the response of group animals, who need to belong and wish to be led.
The human veneer on our "carrier" animal is vey thin and remains immature throughout life (probably because puberty plasters animal imperatives all over any emerging capability). The one thing that characterises Tony, Gordon, Dave and their ilk, is an all-consuming wish to be "top" and they apply animal charisma and/or cerebral cunning to that end. It is not difficult to realise these attributes should actually disqualify them from any position of power, if anything worthwhile is to accrue. There is the paradox. To modify that devious old Tory slogan: "Mankind isn't working."

The Kerry question..."Thank you for expressing your support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. " what's that mean? Presumably there is a mistake and they meant the US invasion of Kuwait.

Anyhow, apart from the details. These things are only obvious after they have been stated - This translates into strategy and is important.

  • 4.
  • At 07:11 PM on 15 Aug 2007,
  • Leo A. wrote:

If voters , even in countries with high educational standards, voted only from reason and rationality, then we'd all live in a far more advance world rather than the current day to day mindless barbarity !
Sentiment is the deciding force in political affairs. Despots have know this since human societies first were ever formed!
Hitler knew it ! Stain knew it ! Now-a-days, Bush and the Neo Cons know it !
Drew Western now knows it too !

  • 5.
  • At 07:16 PM on 15 Aug 2007,
  • Vince Crosby wrote:

I feel that this is the way to get to voters by making appeals to logic rather than on party lines. At the last local elections a group of independents made a promise of reducing council tax by 50% but don't say how they will do it and now the people feel let down but the independant councillors are now elected for 4 years and nothing can be done about it.

Understanding the the Neo Con Strategies of setting political agendas through emotionally charged frames is a crucial factor in the return of a highly authoritarian political style in many developed countries in the late 1970s.

Clinton was probably the real survivor of the Centre Left. Blair became too distracted by the War in Iraq when diplomatic alternatives existed for a Third Way Agenda in foreign policy.

Drew Westen is helping to ensure that needs based politics are open to all political parties.

Ironically, it is the USA after the Congressional Elections of 7 November 2006 that is in the forefront of shaping the New Politics. 2008 may be the year of another Prague Spring if Drew Westen's political communication theories are taken seriously.

In Australia, Kevin Rudd is likely to win by a landslide this year if his Federal Labor Party continues to seize the opportunities presented by the New Politics.

The excesses of corporate and militaristic influences on democratic processes are demanding a paradigm swings in domestic and foreign policies.

Drew Westen has offered a window of opportunity for democratic change compatible with the structures of a globalized world.

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