Exploiting neuroscience lessons to shape policy

By Matthew Taylor
Presenter, Brain Culture, BBC Radio 4

  • Published
Gordon Brown and Philip Gould
Image caption,
Lord Gould believed it was important to understand the public's emotional concerns about Labour

Politicians and their advisers are exploiting advances in neuroscience in order to better understand the public, and how they make decisions.

From deciding what to buy in shops, to which candidate to vote for on election day, our decisions are based as much on emotional impulse as rational calculation.

It is a point appreciated by the philosopher David Hume when, in the early part of the 18th Century, he wrote, "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of passion".

But what is changing now, as a result of the developing science of brains and behaviour, is the precision with which those who seek to speak directly to our impulses can operate.

Fortunately, the new science is also available to the public.

Emotional politics

By understanding our cognitive shortcuts and vulnerabilities, perhaps we can be better at resisting some of messages being pumped out at us and also find paths to greater wellbeing.

The death of Philip Gould - one of the architects of New Labour and the party's most influential adviser over two decades - is a reminder that the art of political persuasion is not all about cynical manipulation.

Following Labour's heavy defeat in 1992, Philip Gould knew it was critical to understand not just the public's rational and explicit concerns about Labour but the deeper emotional barriers.

Now political advisers facing similar questions are starting to draw on the results of brain scanning.

Image caption,
Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard meditated for 10,000 hours and was dubbed the happiest man on earth

I spoke to one agency which successfully advised a mayoral candidate in South America.

By measuring brain responses, the agency had been able to brief the politician about his real emotional strengths and weaknesses - regardless of what people said in focus groups.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the agency was unwilling to disclose the name of the politician.

Voters might react badly to the idea that a campaign had been designed to appeal to their instincts rather than their reason.

But political advisors are only playing catch-up with the commercial world. In the last decade, so-called "neuro-marketing" has moved from the margins to the mainstream in the world of advertising.

The 'nudge'

Professor Gemma Calvert, one of the most influential experts of neuro-marketing, argues that while advertisers have always appealed to our emotions, the big difference now is that scanning enables the marketers literally to see the brain's automatic response.

Some people may still be sceptical; we want to believe our choices are rational. But a famous study by Professor Read Montague provides powerful confirmation of the neuro-marketers' claims.

By observing activity in the brain and comparing it with people's stated preferences, Montague claims to have shown that our preferences for Coke or Pepsi are much more to do with marketing than taste.

Montague is among those who think brain science will have a profound impact on culture and society.

After all, it is not just commerce that is using the science.

The Cabinet Office has a team which uses an understanding of automatic cognitive processes to encourage - or Lords look at coalition 'nudges' - us to make what government believes are wider and more pro-social choices.

If the science can be used by those seeking to shape our choices, can it also be used to help us keep control? Another intriguing study by Professor Montague suggests it might.

Exploring the way commercial sponsorship - for example of an art exhibition - can make us feel more warmly inclined towards a product, Montague found one group of subjects was systematically more able to resist this appeal.

It was those who had undertaken some form of mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a fast growing hobby in the UK right now. It is a form of non-spiritual meditation but it is also based on science.

'Knowledge arms race'

Studies of taxi drivers have found that doing 'the Knowledge' gives them an enlarged hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with "filed" memories.

More recent research on the brains of people who have undertaken sustained meditation have found enlargement in parts of the left pre-frontal cortex associated with a feeling of well-being.

Indeed, a few years ago American neuroscientists dubbed Matthieu Ricard, French academic-turned-Buddhist, the happiest man on earth, so much had his brain been developed by 10,000 hours of meditative practice.

It almost feels like a kind of knowledge arms race.

On the one side, advertisers, political strategists and governments are all trying to appeal directly to our automatic brain using insights gleaned from the sciences of brain and behaviour.

On the other side, there is the opportunity for all of us to apply these insights to become more discerning, more in control and maybe even happier.

As we are social animals, more influenced by context and less by conscious choice than we assume, there is simple advice to anyone who wants to be a more virtuous person.

Don't read self-help books, there is no evidence they work. Just choose more virtuous friends, and pretty soon you are likely to start copying them.

Brain Culture: Brain Science and Behaviour Change is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 29 November at 16:00 GMT. You can listen to all three parts of the Brain Culture series via the Radio 4 website. It is one of several programmes broadcast in BBC Radio 4's Brain Season.

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