My vote for the most significant contributions to political science this year: neuroscience applied to voter psychology. We've seen a flurry of books (such as Drew Westen's excellent The Political Brain
) and monographs delving into the emotional processing of information, which in turn help elucidate political behavior.
Political scientists (and consultants) have long gazed upon the surface effects of neurons invisibly reaching out and forging connections as information is taken in with frustrated puzzlement. But we're getting an ever clearer picture of how opinions are formed and ideas reinforced.
Glancing at the NYT
's home page just now, I saw the name "Drew Westen" and eagerly clicked to the article... which turned out to be a David Brooks column. It's been quite a while since I bothered to follow the semolina trail of his noodlings. But I can't quite claim to be shocked, shocked that Brooks seems to have reviewed a book other than the one in bookstores appearing under the same title.
Here's Brooks' conclusion
about Westen's work:
The core problem with Westen’s book is that he doesn’t really make use of what we know about emotion. He builds on the work of Antonio Damasio, without applying Damasio’s conception of how emotion emerges from and contributes to reason.
In this more sophisticated view, emotions are produced by learning. As we go through life, we learn what cause leads to what effect. When, later on, we face similar situations, the emotions highlight possible outcomes, drawing us toward some actions and steering us away from others.
In other words, emotions partner with rationality. It’s not necessary to dumb things down to appeal to emotions. It’s not necessary to understand some secret language that will key certain neuro-emotional firings. The best way to win votes — and this will be a shocker — is to offer people an accurate view of the world and a set of policies that seem likely to produce good results.
This is how you make voters happy.
Now, I do share Brooks' sentiment
that political campaigns limit their energies to presenting cogent, rational arguments. But wishing doesn't make it so. I don't see how you can read The Political Brain
and deny that tracks are laid down and reinforced through emotions via neural networks.
Most people - you, me, David Brooks - believe we've arrived at an opinion rationally. In fact, we derive our opinions emotionally but then convince ourselves afterward that our opinions have a logical basis.
Here's a selection from Westen, explaining the evolution of the brain in our protohominid ancestors. Appearing later than the cerebrum, the amygdala
is involved in many emotional processes, from identifying and responding to emotional expressions in others, to attaching emotional significance to events, to creating the intensity of emotional experience, to generating and linking feelings of fear to experiences.
Researchers first began to understand the functions of the amygdala decades ago, when they found that destroying a region of the brain in monkeys that later turned out to include the amygdala produced a peculiar syndrome. The monkeys no longer seemed to understand the emotional significance of objects in their environment, even though they had no trouble recognizing, identifying, or remembering them. They would eat feces or other inedible objects that normally elicited disgust or indifference, and they were no longer afraid of things that had previously led to fear. With "reason" intact but emotion incapacitated, these monkeys were generally unable to use their emotions to guide their behavior.
The amygdala can respond to stimuli even when the person has no awareness of having seen them. Presenting a threatening stimulus subliminally (i.e., so quickly that the person cannot report seeing it) can lead to activation of the amygdala, suggesting an emotion system that is constantly processing emotionally relevant information faster than we can consciously register it.
Goodness knows I'm not pleased to contemplate neuroscientists rappelling out of their ivory towers to join the ranks of K Street consulting firms. But such conclusions have already been incorporated into many an id-tickling message. And like it or not, we're going to see more Junior Roves earning their merit badges in subliminally negative advertising.
We return to Brooks for a moment to loop back to the top of his article, in which he adds a dash of sarcasm to his brief Cook's Tour of arguments from what he calls the "Why Democrats Lose" genre:
First, Democrats lose because they are too intelligent. Their arguments are too complicated for American voters. Second, Democrats lose because they are too tolerant. They refuse to cater to racism and hatred. Finally, Democrats lose because they are not good at the dark art of politics. Republicans, though they are knuckle-dragging simpletons when it comes to policy, are devilishly clever when it comes to electioneering. They have brilliant political consultants like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, who frame issues so fiendishly, they can fool the American people into voting against their own best interests.
Now why would one possibly conclude that Republicans frequently run on anything other than The Issues? What a mystery.
And I leave it to Brooks to defend Republicans' stellar domestic and foreign policy achievements lo these past six years. (I think he's onto something with the "knuckle-dragging simpletons," though.)
What's amusing here is that Brooks is chortling his way around an interesting explanation for what we can manifestly see with our own eyes
. We've seen the effects; now we have a better idea of the cause.
As perhaps the best example, most of us have noticed - how to put it? - a certain pattern
in terror alerts over the years. Anyone save those with a Republican axe to grind have known that these urgent bulletins about some phantom plot unraveled or the arrest for the 27th time of Al Qaeda's Number 3 man coincided with the political calendar. Armchair pontificators and official pundits alike also assume that constant invocations of terror redound to Republicans. They couldn't tell you exactly why - but it seems to be a fair supposition.
Now we're starting to flesh out that picture. John Judis
has a brief but interesting introduction to the work of Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski - three academic political psychologists whose initial work sought to explain what they called "terror management theory." They hypothesized and confirmed that
the mere thought of one's mortality can trigger a range of emotions--from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.
An interesting beginning. And when you think about it, not much of a surprise: George Orwell was onto this stuff a half-century ago. We continue along the path of their discoveries:
To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes "worldview defense"--their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger--they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"; the other required them to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead." They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50.
Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called "mortality salience" affected people's view of other races, religions, and nations.
But the three had yet another important discovery ahead of them:
Drawing on psychoanalysis, but looking for experimental verification, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski developed a theory to explain how mortality salience works. When they started conducting experiments, the psychologists had believed that the sheer recognition of one's mortality directly triggered worldview defense. But, when other psychologists, varying the procedure, failed to reproduce the same results, they discovered an important caveat: When they would ask subjects to make judgments immediately following the mortality exercises, the exercises would have little effect. It was only when they interspersed a diversionary interval between the exercises and the judgments that the exercises had their full impact.
Freud had distinguished between "primary processes" of thought that were unconscious and irrational and "secondary processes" that were conscious and rational. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski reasoned that, when individuals first feel anxiety about their mortality, they respond consciously by invoking the usual psychological defenses-- for instance, telling themselves that "it's not me, now." That allayed conscious anxiety, but, after the conscious anxiety about mortality had subsided, the thought remained unconscious and active and led people to erect worldview defenses. "The implicit knowledge of death rather than the current focal awareness is the motivating factor," they wrote. "Once the problem of death is out of focal attention but while it is still highly accessible, terror management concerns are addressed by ... bolstering faith in the worldview."
To demonstrate this effect, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski devised experiments using subliminal cues. They asked subjects to evaluate whether two words on a computer screen were related. One group of subjects had the word "death" flashed subliminally between the two words, while another group had the word "field" flashed. Afterward, neither group said they saw more than two words at a time. But, by using word-fragment completion tests--for instance, is "coff_ _" completed as "coffin" or "coffee"?--the psychologists were able to establish that the group which had "death" flashed before them, but not the control group, was unconsciously thinking about death. The psychologists then asked the groups to evaluate essays critical and supportive of the United States. Those who had "death" flashed before them had a much more negative view of the essay critical of the United States than those who had seen the word "field." They exhibited the same pattern of judgment as those who had done the mortality exercises but, unlike them, did not need an interval before making judgments. The psychologists still lacked a full explanation of how this worked, but they had shown that, in their words, "worldview defense in response to thoughts of death does not require any conscious awareness of such thoughts." Indeed, it worked best when these thoughts were unconscious.
[cross-posted at Vernon Lee]
Labels: David Brooks, political advertising