Why Politics is Hard


If you were asked to judge a policy proposal for addressing a social issue, which would be more important to you, the content of the proposal or the party that wrote it? Most of us would answer that the specific policies would be much more important than the political party that proposed it. Most of us would be dead wrong.

Political marketers know that they have to target swing voters (undecideds, independents, etc.) with their ads and other efforts because trying to change the mind of committed party members is next to impossible. In The Neuroscience of Political Marketing, I described research by Drew Westen at Emory that showed political messages were processed primarily in an emotional, not rational, way. A study by social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen at Yale shows that cognitive dissonance plays a big role in the way people evaluate political issues, and that they will adjust their beliefs (and maybe facts) as needed to resolve that dissonance.

Cohen’s experiment was simple. He organized two groups of subjects, one composed of liberal Democrats, the other of conservative Republicans. Then, he showed them very different proposals on the topic of welfare. One policy proposal was very liberal, and involved large expenditures of tax money. The other was harshly conservative, and proposed far lower levels of assistance and expense. As you might expect, the liberal subjects preferred the free-spending plan while the conservatives liked the restrictive plan.

Here’s the bizarre twist: when the subjects were told that the plan they didn’t like had been proposed by their own party, their attitudes changed and they favored the plan they had initially opposed. Liberals thought that cracking down on welfare was a good idea, while conservatives found they could justify opening the coffers for this important social purpose. They even wrote essays explaining why the policy they now favored was appropriate.

And, as Neuromarketing readers could anticipate, the subjects were unaware of this influence. They did think that other people were influenced by party beliefs, but considered their own decision-making to be rational and not tainted by politics.

This is another example of why getting votes from opposing party members is so difficult. One’s political affiliation can trump everything, including logic and common sense.
Image via Shutterstock

1 Comment
  1. David Smith says

    (heh-heh, did you notice the “very liberal” versus “harshly conservative”?)

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