The Political Brain – a practical must-read


12:25 pm - December 16th 2007

by Natalie Bennett    


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There’s an old myth about the nature of human behaviour – the myth of the “rational consumer” – this is a man (and yes it always seems to be a man) who always acts in ways in his own self-interest, driving the “perfect” invisible hand of a market economy. It is a myth that even in economics has disappeared from the all but the wildest fringes of the capitalist apologists, but Drew Westen, in his powerful new The Political Brain shows that it clings on in some areas, including the world of the Democratic Party of the USA.

And, I suspect, further afield. There’s something about left politics that makes it particularly prone to believing that if you just present people with the facts, with a solid rational argument, then of course they’ll see sense. It tends to produce leaflets dense in text and detail, arguments involving complex mathematical formulae, and headline high on accuracy and low on sexiness.

Yet just as the “rational consumer” is a myth, so is the voter. Westen devotes the first part of this book to some detailed, factual studies and arguments rather like those he is suggesting politicians avoid. These are scans of the brains of committed voters as they are faced with political contradictions in the (imaginary) actions of their “own” side. This is what the researchers found:

“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 mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate’s words and deeds…. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.”

Yet this is not new knowledge. Westen reports on a fascinating study from the Seventies, which asked voters about their emotions towards presidential candidates, with a list of 12, from “angry” to “hopeful”. They also asked for links to a list of emotion-laden traits such as “honest”, “smart”, “inspiring” etc. And the result was that “people’s positive and negative associations to a candidate were better predictors of their voting preferences than even their judgements about his personality and competence. Voters may disagree with things a candidate stands for or may dislike aspects of his personality, but when feelings about the candidate and more considered assessments of his strengths and weaknesses differ, feelings tend to trump beliefs.”

Taking this, Westen argues that what adverts and political messages need to deliver are powerful, emotional messages, positive associations with the candidate and negative with the opponent. Two extracts from the book, published here and here. set out examples of this.

But Westen is no fan of the “avoiding negative campaigning” school of thought. He argues that the Democrats in the US have been hugely damaged by the “politics of avoidance”. Issues such as national security, abortion and guns have been seen as “negative” for them, leading to advice to dodge them – which has both left the grounds of defining the debate to the Republicans, while also frequently appearing to be shifting or lacking in moral strength themselves.

Westen looks at the work of John Zaller, who has considered how discourse of “political elites” enters the public discourse and shapes public opinion. If the view is seen as united (as usually at the start of a war), the vast majority of the public will follow the single line. He goes on to Samuel Popkin, who argues this is “a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don’t have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state” – this is “low-information rationality”. If opinion in the “elite” is seen to be split, most will follow the line of their favoured party, for the same reasons. But if one party is staying silent, it leaves the defining to the other.

Also, he returns to the structure of the brain to note that positive and negative emotions are not opposites, but “psychologically distinct, mediated by different neural circuits and affecting voting in diffent ways. Focusing primarily on the positive and leaving the negative to chance is simply ceding half the brain to the opposition.” Candidates can’t win afford high negatives, but they usually won’t win with low positives.

So he approves (somewhat unusually) of one common political took, the “message grid”, for four questions to start a campaign: “What will I tell voters about me? What will I say about my opponent? What will my opponent tell voters about himself or herself? What will my opponent say about me?”

Successful campaigns should address all of these, and furthermore tell “good stories”: “association’s don’t ‘stick’ in voters’ minds unless they’re embedded in coherent narratives. And they stick all too well if the other side tells stories that go unanswered.”

And, Westen argues, there are times when politicians should appeal to voters’ conscious, rather than unconscious, thoughts. He uses the US example of race: many voters might hold unconscious racist sentiments – often played on by Reagan with terms such as “welfare queens” – but they will consciously reject obvious racism. He quotes the case of Senator George Allen of Virginia, who in 2006 saw a man of Indian descent in a crowd, who he knew worked for his Democrat challenger, then said “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of America.”

His opponent didn’t respond directly, but let the media do it for him. Allen’s 12 point lead dissolved in a week, but in the end his Democrat opponent Jim Webb, only just scraped the seat. Westen argues that this was because the Democrat failed to take and shape the incident, and the constant replaying of the piece may thus have appealed to the nasty unconscious, rather than the well-meaning conscious approach.

But, in the end, Westen comes back to the unconscious, with a look at the importance of the candidate’s “curb appeal”. He quotes a remarkable study of photos of winning and losing candidates shown for 1 second to voters who did not know them. Asked to rank competence, trustworthiness, honesty etc, their judgements that included competence predicted the winner about 70% of the time – in 1 second! So, he comes back to the importance of the minutae of body language – and how voters can interpret odd little “tics” or habits of candidates.

There’s a lot more in this book than I’ve summarised here – essential reading for anyone in the political game, particularly from the left.

(Cross-posted from Philobiblon)

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Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party of England and Wales
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Reader comments


Hmm… so consumers behave irrationally? When offered two prices for the same product they are as likely to pick the higher price as the lower one? I find that rather far fetched.

Of course, consumers make little mistakes all the time (mistaking good packaging or framing for a sign of higher quality for example) but in general, all the little decisions tend to add up to generate better and better products in the market.

The problem with political parties is that what they are selling rarely has a very accurate price tag on it. If it does, it might not be the voter that has (or thinks they have) to pay the price upon voting for it. Someone else will be forced to pay and it will be down to one’s personal affiliations and inclinations over whether you believe this other group ought to pay for your policies. So the rational voter is indeed a myth, and this piece reminds me somewhat of this fascinating article from a few months ago: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=8262

Also, incidently reminds me of this which is hilarious: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M-cmNdiFuI

There is no “myth” of the rational consumer – just a simplifying assumption.

That piece of pedantry aside, two thoughts occur to me.

The first is that the idea that voters are irrational is hardly new to the left. Think of all those theories of “false consciousness”.

The second is that this complaint about irrational voters has been made before by left wing Americans over the last decade. “What’s the matter with Kansas” etc. Probably the Republicans will start writing the same sort of book after they lose the next election (which seems likely).

If your ideas have been rejected by the electorate, claiming that the electorate is irrational and wrong is a lot more comforting than considering that you might have been wrong yourself. Which is what lead to the theories of false consciousness.

The Tories have not been so analytic over the last decade, but they have clearly been influenced by similar thoughts.

Thanks for posting this Natalie.

A few thoughts occur to me. I’m reading Matt Bai’s book: ‘The Argument’ right now, which briefly looks at the Democratic party’s own navel-gazing at why they lost the election.

“What’s the matter with Kansas” is mentioned in there too.

ad says: If your ideas have been rejected by the electorate, claiming that the electorate is irrational and wrong is a lot more comforting than considering that you might have been wrong yourself. Which is what lead to the theories of false consciousness.

I don’t think this is necessarily about blaming the electorate. I think this is about positioning yourself and your message. The point I would take from here is that the mainstream left is sometimes too afraid to aggressively position their message emotionally as opposed to rationally.

Left-wing Americans have made similar points to a certain extent – particularly around the language used to deny the choice of abortion (“pro-life”) and cutting welfare (“tax-relief”) that it automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

Language and emotions are much more important in politics than we would like to admit. More recently, we saw Nadine Dorries use the phrase “The abortion industry” here to try and make out like there were vested financial interests in giving women that option etc etc.
Why the liberal-left doesn’t get down and dirty on those terms really annoys me.

I don’t think this is necessarily about blaming the electorate.

I think it is more about excusing ones own defeat. No one ever wrote a book explaining how their own side won because the people were irrational.

And another part is excusing one’s own attempt to manipulate the electorate.

For example: Left-wing Americans have made similar points to a certain extent – particularly around the language used to deny the choice of abortion (”pro-life”) and cutting welfare (”tax-relief”) that it automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

And you don’t think the term “pro-choice” is manipulative? Pro-choice about what? Heroin? Conscription? Income tax? Wife-beating? Sex-selective abortion?

I don’t have a problem with abortion. But the whole point about talking about being “pro-choice” is to avoid drawing attention to what you are talking about.

Which is just another kind of positioning.

Remember that every single one of the biases Westen described exists in your mind as well. In fact, if you are interested in politics, they are probably far stronger in your mind than in the mind of the average voter. Most of them are connected to feelings of loyalty after all. And we are all loyal to our own side, are we not?

I don’t have a problem with abortion. But the whole point about talking about being “pro-choice” is to avoid drawing attention to what you are talking about.

Which is just another kind of positioning.

Of course, but I don’t have a problem with that positioning. Positioning is necessary precisely because people don’t make political decisions on rational evaluations, but on emotional instinct. Which is also one of the reasons why Cameron has tried so hard (and still found it difficult) to throw off the ‘Tory-toff’ image.

Remember that every single one of the biases Westen described exists in your mind as well.

I’m not denying I’m biased. Neither am I denying that one should position themselves. I think politics is a dirty game and it will never be a nice game as such. If you have convictions in your ideas then you have to sell them to the electorate. If you can’t, then you’re rubbish.

That is of course only half the problem. The other half – that the Democrats (and New Labour) have is that they don’t have ideas to sell.

I agree with you Sunny about the dirty arts of politics. But I suppose there is a balance here. You see what I see wtih New Labour is that they actually lost sight of the ideas in pursuit of victory- they were great tacticians but bad strategists- and that’s because ultimately they weren’t as interested in ideas as they were in victories. I think you need both kinds of people in order to work out a course forwards. Obviously political judgement is partly irrational- but its not wholely irrational. If it were wholly irrational there would be no such thing as a better political argument- there would just be different emotional responses towards issues. In a sense these papers appeal to an idea of reason, even whilst suggesting that the population politically doesn’t always work rationally, because they substantiate an account of politics with facts and analysis.

In part doesn’t this come back to Blair during the Iraq war. Blair said he was sincere about there being weapons of mass destruction there- as if just sincerely holding a belief was enough. But it isn’t enough to just hold a view with conviction, you also have to be right- ie your view has to be close to the truth. Blair in Iraq wasn’t right- he hadn’t taken the time to check his convictions against the evidence, against the facts. That betrays I think his mental bias towards this kind of thinking- ie that what matters is that you are sincere and act according to your conscience whereas what matters is that you are those things, and that more importantly you’re right.

7. Andreas Paterson

I would like to wholeheartedly second the author’s recommendation of this book, it’s a fantastic insight into how to get a political message accross in a way that appeals to voters.

ad, on the subject of abortion I would make this point. Both the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” tell their own side’s story in the debate and leave out the story the other side would like to tell. However, I think that in terms of pure practicality attempting to discuss issues and giving each issue time appropritate to it’s importance and using language that is completely neutral. Since bias is pretty much inherent in use of language by politicians, it seems logical that a politican should tell their story and leave it to his or her opponent to point out the holes.

Hmm… so consumers behave irrationally? When offered two prices for the same product they are as likely to pick the higher price as the lower one? I find that rather far fetched.

Never worked on a market then? In the old days traders would make two piles of the same produce (cauliflowers, say) and price one pile dearer than the other. There were always people who bought the dearer caulis, for whatever reasons, and if the stallholder sold out of the cheaper ones he just made two smaller piles out of the remaining dear ones — and so on… Irrational? I don’t know. Profitable, certainly. 🙂

It’s more expensive, so it must be better.

Not unlike “We’re spending more on the NHS, so it must be better”.

Sunny: everyone engages in positioning, weasel words etc. But I get suspicious when people implicitly or explicitly claim that only the other lot do it.

The author isn’t claiming only the other side does it, just that the other side in the US has done it a lot better, and a lot more consciously.

Gracchi, I agree with all of what you say above.

I’m not saying that emotional engagement is the only option available to a politician. But it does matter and the Republicans have been great at using that than the Democrats. The latter have a problem with new ideas, as New Labour does.

But the advantage New Labour has, I feel, is that the Tories have been rubbish at aping the Republicans…. so Labour have managed to be superior tacticians.

Labour?

Or Blair?

” – Hmm… so consumers behave irrationally? When offered two prices for the same product they are as likely to pick the higher price as the lower one? I find that rather far fetched. –

Never worked on a market then? In the old days traders would make two piles of the same produce (cauliflowers, say) and price one pile dearer than the other. There were always people who bought the dearer caulis, for whatever reasons, and if the stallholder sold out of the cheaper ones he just made two smaller piles out of the remaining dear ones — and so on… Irrational? I don’t know. Profitable, certainly. :)”

As it happens, I ran a market stall for a few weeks. It wasn’t very successful, partly because we were quite bad at pricing our goods. That example does sound particularly daft (same product, same stall, different prices) but it still sounds like in general, people go for the cheaper option. In other words, you don’t need EVERYONE in the market to behave perfectly rationally in every decision they take, just for most people to be behaving quite or moderately rationally for most of the time. That is enough to have the correct incentives feed into the system.


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