[M]uch of our brain consists of networks of associations--thoughts, images, ideas, memories, and emotions--that become connected with each other over time, so that activating one part of a network activates the rest (including the gut-level feelings associated with a candidate that "summarize" voters' judgments about the candidate and are among the best predictors in the voting booth). The more times a network is activated, the harder it is to change, for reasons both physiological and psychological.Drew Westen... he seems to be one of these academics who's repackaged his field to make him an expert on politics. I note that the New Republic headline writers situated his insights the field of advertising anyway. The problem is the "delay in branding John McCain," not the delay in rewiring our neural links.
Physiologically, the more two neurons are activated together, the more likely one is to trigger the other, as chemical changes in the cells themselves and the actual growth of physical links between them bind them together. Pragmatically speaking, that means that the more times voters hear John McCain described as a war hero and a strong potential commander-in-chief-instead of, for example, a man with such poor judgment on national security that he would support an endless continuation of an ill-fated war much like the one he suffered through despite his own personal experience--the harder it will be to deactivate that network and inhibit those neural links.
But what do we think of Drew Westen's political brain science?
One thing I love about blogging is that I have a searchable record of whether I've dealt with this character before. And yes I have. Here:
And here's another one:
Newsweek serves up the hot news that voters are swayed by emotion...... and tries to sell us the laughable theory that Democrats, not realizing this blindingly obvious reality, have gone wrong by relying only on rational argument.
The article is mainly about the book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” by Drew Westen....
Hilariously, Newsweek claims that the reason Democrats and not Republicans are going to Westen for advice is that Republicans already know they need to use emotion. Never mind that that Westen's book is plainly speaking to Democrats and advising them on how to make their positions more emotionally appealing.
In today's NYT, John Tierney conveys an expert psychologist's advice to John Kerry. The expert is Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, and the specific Kerry concern addressed is Clinton's charisma, which is going to shine upon us for the next week or month or so. Should Kerry, like Gore, distance himself from Clinton? Professor Westen says no, based on experiments inspired by the commercial, shown in the 2000 Presidential campaign, that momentarily flashed the word "rats" on the TV screen:Hey, wait a minute! Drew Westen is advising the Democrats about subliminal advertising? Remember when I pointed out that the letters "NIG" appeared on the shoulder of the sleeping black child in Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m." commercial — the one that had such a mysteriously powerful effect on the nation's psyche? Lots of people went into severe reactive denial. I must be crazy! Ask psychprof Drew Westen if I'm crazy.[One experiment showed] that people exposed subliminally to "rats" before seeing the picture of a politician tended to rate the politician more negatively.
"Subliminal priming can't radically change someone's opinion, but it can have an impact," Professor Westen said. "It won't make you drink if you're not thirsty, but if you are thirsty it could make you drink more. If Republicans had run the 'rats' ad enough, it's possible they could have influenced a small number of voters."...
The psychologists measured his appeal last year by flashing subliminal images of Mr. Clinton to people before asking them to rate their feelings toward Gray Davis, the then-unpopular governor of California. The people unknowingly exposed to Mr. Clinton's face tended to rate Mr. Davis considerably less negatively than did the control group, and the effect was especially strong among independent voters (as opposed to hard-core Democrats or Republicans with fixed attitudes about Mr. Davis).
"It was surprising that something as fleeting as three brief images of Clinton could affect people's gut attitudes toward a politician who was already as well known and unpopular as Gray Davis," Professor Westen said. "Clinton can bring out warm feelings in voters for Kerry the way that the late Ronald Reagan did last week for President Bush. For Democrats the mantra this year should be, 'It's the emotion, stupid.'"
Looking back at that post, I see that I updated it with a comment that referred to Drew Westen's work. (The name was misspelled as "Drew Westin," which I've now corrected.) When I did that update, I didn't remember that Westen was on record as actively advising Democrats — urging them to operate on our brains subliminally.
Here are 2 things to keep separate:
1. What, if any, sorts of messages have a subliminal effect on our brains? How does this work? How can it be used and how can we defend against manipulation?
2. Which candidates are trying to use subliminal messages to get us to think things they couldn't say directly? How should we judge a candidate who we discover is trying to do that?
ADDED: And Bill Clinton knows all about Westen and his book:
By now [July 2007], Dr. Westen has met with just about every major Democratic group, big donor and activist, not to mention several presidential candidates over the last several months.
Former President Bill Clinton, who was reading the book over the weekend, called Dr. Westen from Colorado to tell him how much he liked it. (Mr. Clinton comes off very well in its pages.)
“To say I think it’s a very important book is an understatement,” Mr. Clinton said in a telephone interview yesterday, adding that he particularly liked the discussion of how one could “evoke emotion without being intellectually dishonest.”
“One of the things I do for Hillary is research,” he said, referring to his wife’s presidential campaign. “I read things and underline them. I want her to look at it; I think she’ll largely agree with its findings.”
AND: Just look at how Westen's book buttered up Bill Clinton.