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June 14, 2007

The Political Brain

I'm genuinely not a big fan of advice books for Democrats. Most of them strike me as very little beyond a complicated rationale for why the author's personal position is the only ideology that could construct a crushing majority in this country. Convenient, particularly since I often agree with the author's ideology, but not necessarily enlightening. Drew Westen, a political psychologist with a focus on neuropsychiatric research, brings a bit more value to the process. And so I highly recommend that folks read his book excerpt focusing on how voters experience politics, and how Democrats all too often speak on another plane entirely.

"The vision of mind," writes Westen, "that has captured the imagination of Democratic strategists for much of the last 40 years -- 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...Our brains are nothing but vast networks of neurons. Of particular importance for understanding politics are "networks of associations" -- bundles of thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, memories, and emotions that have become linked through experience. People can't tell you much about what's in those networks, or about what's likely to change them (which happen to be the central determinants of voting behavior). They can't tell you because they don't have conscious access to them, any more than they can tell you what's going on in their pancreas. And if you ask them, they often get it wrong."

It's this mistake that leads to the polling literalism of so many Democratic campaigns: The yes I'm for prescription drug reimportation, no I'm not for Social Security privatization, type of messaging. But voters often don't know what they do and don't like. Their brain doesn't react to political rhetoric with either a happy or sad face. "In polls and focus groups, voters told John Kerry's consultants that they didn't like "negativity," so the consultants told Kerry to avoid it. To what extent those voters just didn't know the power of negative appeals on their own networks, or didn't want to admit it, is unclear."

Westen goes on to use examine the electorate's contradictory associations on guns. Towards the end, he veers a bit too deep into framing waters for my tastes, but even so: The explanation of the political brain is fascinating stuff, and one all us armchair strategist, and all actual strategists, should read.

June 14, 2007 | Permalink


"In polls and focus groups, voters told John Kerry's consultants that they didn't like "negativity," so the consultants told Kerry to avoid it. To what extent those voters just didn't know the power of negative appeals on their own networks, or didn't want to admit it, is unclear."

This is something that has baffled me for years. In every election cycle, Democrats are told "don't go negative" because voters don't like that. And every election cycle, Rovian politics uses a destructive negative model for campaigning. And the GOP used negative campaigning to transform from a structural minority party in the 1970s to pull even in numbers with the Democrats by the mid-90s.

I've always wondered why, if negative campaigning were so self-defeating, the Republicans always seemed to have so much success with it.

Posted by: Whispers | Jun 14, 2007 9:21:43 AM

The philosopher Arnold Davidson has argued that Sigmund Freud's insights were so incredible, so groundbreaking into the nature of the psyche, that he lacked the language to express them in any but the very flawed modes in which he wrote.

I think Davidson overstates the case, but it's a lot of fun to see cognitive scientists try to explain the drives and the unconscious - I mean, really, that is what Westen is talking about here. And Westen's totally right, too.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jun 14, 2007 9:25:41 AM

I call BS, of the self-pitying sort. Democrats have not solely relied on intellectual debates and points to win the hearts and minds of voters, ever. It's a selectivity bias: we think little of Republican arguments so we dismiss their relevance, and we think much of Democratic arguments so we think that must be what Democrats are using to run elections. A brief search on any major right-wing blog will show that Republicans have the exact same views, just vice-versa.

We use emotional appeals all the time, particularly to working class voters. We also use being right when that works. Rarely has anyone shown when there was a clear opportunity cost to being intellectually correct that meant we couldn't also emotionally campaign.

I could go on and on about the problems of this victimized self-pitying. It implies that we can pass whatever policies we like, democratic consent doesn't care about the content at all. It encourages both sides to escalate their emotional appeals, and their negative attacks. It's hard to empirically measure and ever hold to some accountability.

We are an evenly divided nation politically, and have been for over a decade. September 11th shifted it a little in favor of Republicans, and blacklash has shifted it a little in favor of Democrats, but no one side is dominating because of a giant edge in campaigning methodology.

Posted by: Tony V | Jun 14, 2007 9:58:58 AM

Aren't "the electorate's contradictory associations on guns" entirely a function of the fact that while majorities support gun-control legislation, no one is going to go vote for you because you support it, while lots of people are going to vote against you?

A similar dynamic cuts against the left-of-center position on a number of other issues: the environment, choice, "taxes", etc.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 14, 2007 10:19:39 AM

Re: "Our brains are nothing but vast networks of neurons."

Where to start? One could say that, similarly,
the Mona Lisa is nothing but a bunch of sploches of paint. And, a Ferrari is nothing but a bunch of nuts, bolts, and pieces of steel thrown together.

I agree with the conclusion about our lack of conscious access to the internal workings of the brain. But, this is not because its a hodgepodge of a bunch of neurons. The brain is an exquisitly crafted computing device, by far the most incredible, complex device that we know of in the universe. Also, the brain follows a logic that, while it might seem irrational to us at times, is incredibly rational in the context of the kinds of decisions that needed to be made given uncertain information over the course of evolutionary history.

The key to understanding the "irrationality" of our minds lies not in understanding the physical mechanisms, ie, neurons. Rather, it lies in understanding the evolutionary contingencies that shaped how the brain developed. An excellent book for laymen on this is Pinker's "How the Mind Works".

Posted by: Jim W | Jun 14, 2007 10:45:53 AM

"An excellent book for laymen on this is Pinker's "How the Mind Works"."

Laywomen however . . . - sorry, sorry, couldn't help it . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Jun 14, 2007 11:09:09 AM

If you want a bunch of just-so stories that speculatively support already-existing structures of power, in particular the subordination of women...

"An excellent book for laymen on this is Pinker's "How the Mind Works"

Posted by: DivGuy | Jun 14, 2007 11:53:14 AM

As someone who has studied Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience for a good portion of my adult life, I think Pinker's book does a great job of summarizing the state of the field. The evolutionary psych aspects of it are probably a bit more speculative, but nevertheless quite good, in my opinion.

Anyway, regardless of what you think of that book, the fact remains: we don't lack conscious access to the internal workings of our mind because "the brain is nothing but a vast network of neurons". This kind of explanation provides no insight whatsoever. To the extent that we lack conscious access, I believe its because it didn't help our ancestor's to survive.

Posted by: Jim W | Jun 14, 2007 12:04:10 PM

"In polls and focus groups, voters told John Kerry's consultants that they didn't like "negativity," so the consultants told Kerry to avoid it.

If that's true, every one of those consultants needs to be banned from consulting for life. At least Kerry isn't running again this time.

Posted by: JewishAtheist | Jun 14, 2007 12:04:38 PM

"but no one side is dominating because of a giant edge in campaigning methodology ..."

That's just wrong.

While the 'neuron' thing is blather, as Jim W points out, the excerpt is generally dead on, most specially when it emphasizes the need to stand up when hit, some way, some how. And yes, D's often just hope it will go away ...

Posted by: drinkof | Jun 14, 2007 12:10:27 PM

"To the extent that we lack conscious access, I believe its because it didn't help our ancestor's to survive."

And we don't have huge claws and sonar because those wouldn't have helped our ancestors survive either.

Seriously, *what*? Evolution doesn't work like that. Traits don't just appear because they'd be helpful; before they get selected for they have to get mutated for in the first place. And beyond that, the selection process is inefficient and slow and (even at optimum efficiency) connects lots of irrelevant genetic junk to the thing being selected for.

Sorry, I understand that this is derailing the discussion. But the idea that something *must* be unhelpful, or else we'd have evolved it, is so unutterably dumb that it can't go unanswered.

Posted by: TheKingInYellow | Jun 14, 2007 12:42:43 PM

Whispers, the same thing happens in television news. Everybody says they don't want to see "negative news" on the local evening news, but almost invariably, when a station tries to go "all nice," the ratings plummet.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly | Jun 14, 2007 12:58:13 PM

I have to weigh in on Pinker.

Wags call it "Steven Pinker's Idea of How the Mind Works." "The Blank Slate" is even worse, as Pinker grinds several axes for Evolutionary Psychology (capital letters, please), versus legitimate evolutionary psychology.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly | Jun 14, 2007 1:01:15 PM

Sorry, one more post, to quote the graf above where Ezra starts his Westin graf:

"Democrats typically bombard voters with laundry lists of issues, facts, figures, and policy positions, while Republicans offer emotionally compelling appeals, whether to voters' values, principles, or prejudices. As a result, we have seen only one Democrat elected and reelected to the White House since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Clinton, who, like Roosevelt, understood how to connect with voters emotionally) and only one Republican fail to do so (George Bush Senior, who ran like a Democrat and paid for it)."

Bush Senior didn't run like a Democrat, or much of anything; he certainly didn't run on "laundry lists." Sounds like Westin is taking a preconceived theory and trying to shoehorn anecdotal evidence to fit.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly | Jun 14, 2007 1:03:54 PM


Yes, I'm aware of how evolution works. I wrote a quick comment, not a treatise on all things evolutionary. There are also a lot of other factors involved in evolution that you didn't mention. Does that make your post unutterably dumb?

Posted by: Jim W | Jun 14, 2007 1:06:43 PM

Drinkof: how is that just wrong?

Listen: Democrats campaign emotionally, they demagogue, they use bumper-sticker slogans, tribal identities, and anything else to get elected. We don't do it on nice blogs like these, but stop acting like we play with kid gloves and take a huge political hit for it.

Have any of you worked on a campaign or talked to someone who has? Has any candidate relied on the public analytically appreciating their insights? Hell no.

Yes it's nice to know he specific science behind this, but there is honestly nothing in that article that would change gut-level-aimed campaigning.

Posted by: Tony V | Jun 14, 2007 1:09:14 PM

Um, Westen's got a massively bigger problem than he would seem to imagine (I haven't read the book). Modern democracies are explicitly designed to rely upon rational self-interest. It's explicit, for example, in John Locke and The Federalist Papers that the majority of people can readily exercise their reason as to political (and other) decisions.

If, in fact, most people are quite unable to do this (as Ezra's quote from Westen would indicate), then it's easily arguable that we shouldn't have democracy at all. At minimum, a democracy with wide suffrage is going to descend into being a mirror of the irrational fantasies of the populance. Political dominance within a democracy would in actuality come to rely upon which group can more readily manipulate the fantasies of the population, rather than the rational discourse of the Enlightenment.

In fact, Westen seems to agree with the precise argument of the aristocratic / royal regimes that the Enlightenment opposed. The supporters of aristocracy and royalism opposed democracy because they argued that the vast majority of the populance had no ability to reason, so society needs to give them fantasies, pomp, splendour and myths to give the populous' "minds" something to do. Democracy would just force the people to give up solid and practicable beliefs (the Church, the glory of chivalric war, etc) and force their "minds" to create bizarre and perverse fantasies unguided out of whatever sources those "minds" could find (whether pornography, TV shows, extremist propaganda that excites the passions, crude nationalisms or racisms, "business gurus", self help hucksters, religious cult leaders, etc etc).

Posted by: burritoboy | Jun 14, 2007 1:21:43 PM

I don't see anything new in what you posted regarding why we should read his book. Frankly, it's what anyone with common sense could figure out. Well, I guess if you lack common sense then the concept that people vote based on emotions rather than reason would come as a shock. I also am not surprised that for this site, and other online blogs this sort of "discovery" of how people really think is a shock. I suppose also I am not surprised that among the Democratic leadership this is also surprising. It's the only thing that explains how they thin, for example, that capitulating on spending in Iraq could result in something in the public mind other than capitulation. I saw one such post here around the time too. It was as if you had no understanding of emotions and their impact at all. That you need a book to explain is as I am fond of saying here truly bizzare.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 14, 2007 1:48:01 PM

Incidentally- I wouldn't talk in terms of frames. I would talk in terms of teaching moments. Each time we do something as party we should understand that each event is seem in the tableau of all other events, even unrelated one, that tend to prove or disprove emotional instincts. The reason why, for example, Democrats are seen as weak isn't about just defense. It's about all the other things too. How we react to S Ct nominees. How we react to GOP attacks. How we react you name the bill. These things teach Americans that we are weak. Many of the "reasonable" ground seem to want to imagine that we enter these situations as emotional blank slates. We aren't. we have years of built of feelings. Your reactions are a lot like coming into marriage that's been around for decades and imagining each day is a new one and the marriage is just at its begining. It's a nice dream, but the reality is that we are a cranky old couple.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 14, 2007 1:52:44 PM

burritoboy: I haven't actually read Westen's book, but his clips on NPR suggest that he doesn't believe in delegating to some rational aristrocracy. Instead, he prescribes some simple techniques to "calm down" and allow the cognitive centers in the brain to come back on so that rational debate can be engaged. I.e. he seems to firmly in the camp of making *everyone* a better voter by helping them engage both their thinking and feeling in contentious debates.

Posted by: Robert Bell | Jun 14, 2007 3:25:26 PM

Burritoboy, you emphasize only one side of the Founders' views, which recognized both the rationality and irrationality of people. The system they arrived at was explicitly a compromise between the democracy and elitist oligarchy, with a variety of measures to prevent it swinging too far either way. Westin may exaggerate, but so do you.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 14, 2007 3:51:15 PM

One much simpler issue that this highlights is something that the smarter Marketing types in business have been concluding for a few years now:

Focus groups are deeply flawed. They in no way reproduce the kind environment where people say what is really on their mind. I could give a laundry list of ways to improve them that political consultants generally fail to utilise (community groups, etc.) but even that doesn't cover all the flaws. The sooner we stop trying to run "direct calculation" from focus groups to election policy proposals, the better off we'll be.

Posted by: Meh | Jun 14, 2007 4:27:24 PM

> Incidentally- I wouldn't talk in terms
> of frames. I would talk in terms of
> teaching moments.

99.7% of adults hate - absolutely HATE - being "taught" anything. They immediately assume (and in many cases rightly so) that the person who has volunteered himself to "educate" them is about to dump a steaming load of condescension and unwanted advice on them.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jun 14, 2007 5:16:12 PM

cranky- learn to read- my point wasn't about teaching. it was about people figuring out who we are by what we do rather than thinking we can talk our way into their minds. the 'teaching moment' is for example like alito. we lost that because we didn't act from showing people that we could stand up for ourselves. teaching moments in other words are moments again where you show who you are without having to say it. no one need ever hear you say you are tough on x or y if you show it.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 14, 2007 6:29:00 PM

Even when focus groups are segregated by gender (mixed sex groups give faulty data because the male participants tend to be, well, loudmouths and the female members' views are shortchanged by the group) and people actually "speak their minds", they are often blind to their own unconscious motivations. So they all hate negative ads, even if they respond to them emotionally.

John Kerry did consult with one market researcher who does dig deeper in his corporate sponsored focus groups, the French-American cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille. He does seem to have a knack out of getting inside the unconscious of focus group members (though there's no evidence of Kerry taking any of his advice).
To quote from Rapaille's excellent recent book The Culture Code:

"I structured a three-hour session with each of the groups. In the first hour, I took on the persona of a visitor from another planet, someone who had never seen coffee before and had no idea how one “used” it... In the next hour, I had them sit on the floor like elementary school children and use scissors and a pile of magazines to make a collage of words about coffee. The goal here was to get them to tell me stories with these words that would offer me further clues.

In the third hour, I had participants lie on the floor with pillows... I put on soothing music and asked the participants to relax. What I was doing was calming their active brain waves, getting them to that tranquil point just before sleep. When they reached this state, I took them on a journey back from their adulthood, past their teenage years, to a time when they were very young. Once they arrived, I asked them to think again about coffee and to recall their earliest memory of it, the first time they consciously experienced it and, if it was different, their most significant memory of it."

Posted by: beowulf | Jun 14, 2007 7:58:22 PM

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