The Neuroscience of Political Marketing


Any experienced political campaign manager will tell you that the swing voters – those individuals who don’t have a strong party commitment – are the ones the candidate has to convince. This may seem obvious – it’s clearly going to be easier to sway a fairly undecided and uncommitted voter than one that has voted a straight party ticket for the opposition for the last twenty years. As it turns out, there’s a growing body of neuroscience research that supports the policy of ignoring the committed base of both parties (except, of course for “get out the vote” efforts for those favorable to the candidate). In late January, Drew Westen of Emory University announced the results of a brain scan study of how political messages are viewed by partisan voters. An article reports,

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

While people not behaving rationally when making voting decisions is hardly “stop the presses” news, the study really points up the near futility of persuading partisan voters with even the most logical appeals. It also explains why sometimes seemingly corrupt politicians get re-elected in some areas. While voters outside the area may shake their head in wonder, what is likely happening is that all of the facts are being processed emotionally by many voters. Negative information is downgraded or discarded, while the candidate’s own explanations are reinforced.

“The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,”

This raise major questions as to the effectiveness of political marketing. Are the billions spent on a news coverage, editorializing, political advertising, etc. all dollars down the drain? Indeed, in Is This Column Futile, Dick Meyer of makes that point,

…market research tends to suggest that anyone reading these words right now is more politically engaged than most. So to the extent this column tries to point out contradictions, dishonesty and hogwash in politics and rhetoric, it is probably a waste of time.

I am, it appears, hitting my ventromedial prefrontal cortex against the wall.

The truth is that political advertising DOES sometimes work, and even editorial writers can have an impact. The people who won’t be affected are the most partisan extremes, but there are plenty of voters in the middle who still process information in a rational, or at least partially rational, manner. Time and time again, negative campaigning has been shown to be effective. While some of the appeal of negative ads is emotional, much of the content is presented as factual information: “My opponent accepted campaign money from crooks… She voted to increase taxes… He was absent for many important votes.” Truly partisan voters won’t be affected in the least. Anything short of FBI video showing the candidate taking bribes will be dismisses as opposition rhetoric without any critical thinking involved. Voters closer to the middle, though, will process this information in at least a partially rational manner (including, of course, judging the credibility of any claims), and may be swayed in one direction or the other.

Westen’s findings won’t affect campaign strategies in the least, inasmuch as they more or less confirm what political pros have known all along. I think the publicity WILL awaken a few political types to the potential input of neuromarketing. If you are running a national campaign, either for a presidential candidate or a political advocacy group, wouldn’t you spend a little to strap some independent voters into an fMRI scanner and see which of your commercials light up different parts of their brain? Of course, just like commercial ads, making the linkage between observed brain activity and ultimate behavior (in this case, in the voting booth) may still be a bit tenuous. Still, I’d be surprised if both parties and some of the bigger advocacy groups weren’t already running some tests or at least planning to do so.

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