Are Political Views Hard-wired?


We know that political marketing – the art of persuading voters to support your candidate – is perhaps the most challenging and least productive form of marketing. A couple of years ago in The Neuroscience of Political Marketing, I described how research shows that political ads seem to go through an “emotional filter” that, in essence, causes voters to discount messages that are inconsistent with their current beliefs. Thus, an accusation that one’s favored candidate took money from special interest groups is likely to be dismissed as a partisan smear rather than evaluated rationally. If that wasn’t enough to frustrate political marketers, there’s now sketchy evidence that our political views may be determined by more fundamental brain wiring attributes.

People who startle easily in response to threatening images or loud sounds seem to have a biological predisposition to adopt conservative political positions on many hot-button issues, according to unusual new research published yesterday.

The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues. [From The Washington Post- Startle Response Linked to Politics by Shankar Vedantam.]

The research was conducted at the University of Nebraska by political scientist John Hibbing and others. They first surveyed a group of voters to determine their political views. Then, months later, they monitored their skin conductance (skin moisture is known to be a stress indicator) while showing them both neutral photos and startling photos (e.g., a spider on the face of a terrified person and an individual with a bloody face.) They also startled subjects by playing a loud sound while measuring their blink intensity. In both cases, subjects with a stronger startle response tended to hold more conservative political views.

The research couldn’t determine whether these response levels were present from birth or had been shaped by the individual’s environment.

Regardless of the origin of these differences between individuals, the research suggests that the fundamental beliefs of many voters may have its basis in their brain’s wiring and that changing attititudes for these individuals will be at best extremely difficult. Once again, the focus has to return to the swing voters whose prewired preferences may not be that strong.

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Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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