March 17, 2008

Unlike Republicans, Democrats are neglecting to rewire our neural links.

So says psychprof Drew Westen:
[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.

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.
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.

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:

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.

And here's another one:
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:
[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.'"
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.

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.


Meade said...

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.

Man, this Dr. Drew Western is some kind of powerful head shrinker - manipulating our neural links to cause typos, amnesia, and who knows what else?! Could he even be the phantom commenter "Tom?"

Anthony said...

I hear it's "settled science" that liberals are cooly rational intellectuals, while conservatives are emotion-driven yahoos.

Theo Boehm said...

Actually, it's settled science that subliminal advertising doesn't work if Hillary does it.

Current psychological theory also holds that it doesn't work in ads for Democrats in general, and if anyone finds evidence for it, they must be imagining things.

A corollary is that if a person searches for such advertising, they must have warped and/or dirty minds and ought to have better things to do with their valuable life.

Of course if anyone caught a Republican with a hidden message in an ad, the story would be on the cover of Newsweek, and there would be calls for a Congressional investigation.

Meade said...

“One of the things I do for Hillary is research,” [Bill Clinton] 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.”

Aw, baby, who you gonna believe? Me and my, uh, research? or your own two lying eyes?

rhhardin said...

Guys are wired to produce mechanistic explanations.

Paul said...

Those people fainting and soiling themselves at the Obama rallies are just too damn rational. They need to get in touch with their feelings more.

Actually from Rousseau on leftist politics has been pretty much entirely emotion based. He himself stated, "I reject reason, because it does not allow room for faith". Modern class warfare and redistributionist policies are all based on envy and retribution. The level of projection on the left is epic.

Crimso said...

"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"

You people don't understand. This is SCIENCE talking here.

ricpic said...

Amazing and frightening the weight people give to pure speculation, provided it's called science and is presented to them by the credentialed, like Herr Perfesser.

George said...

If by subliminal you mean something like images flashed at 1/100th of a second, it is an urban myth that such techniques communicate anything.

And if such sneaky stuff did work, every ad agency would use those gimmicks.

If by subliminal you mean non-verbal techniques such as camera angles, lighting, and music, they're everywhere.

No one knows what's effective. Thus the old joke about the CEO who says that half his ad budget is effective. The problem is that he doesn't know which half.

It was interesting watching "John Adams" last night, how the filmmakers dealt with George Washington. I don't think there were any close-ups of him (a respectful distance) and the camera was typically slightly below his eye level, so he always seemed a bit aloof and slightly superior to the viewer.

Henry said...

Westen actually has a valid point to make in the TNR piece, though it hardly requires an advanced degree to make it. McCain does benefit from the current Democratic infighting. It does help him to own the "War Hero" brand-space as they say in the business.

Westen's historical glance at the Kerry candidancy is a trip. Note to Westen: using "War Hero" twice in the same column -- once to refer to John McCain and once to refer John Kerry -- does not improve the "John Kerry = War Hero" brand.

Since Westen has to pad out his trivial ideas somehow, he turns to the tired meme of Democratic self-pity: We lose because the Republicans have such good marketing.

This is a world where we all grew up drinking New Coke in the back of the Edsel. Comforting, isn't it.

Pogo said...

Drew Westen's stuff is hilarious. It reads like alot of near and pseudoscientific flim-flam so popular today. The 10 dollar words and partial truths lend a veneer of legitimacy to what is otherwise pure bunkum.

Not unlike reading a treatise on phrenology or the mating habits of the Yeti. Photographs of fairies (They're REAL) are a bit more technologically savvy, though.

I hope Mr. Westen is able to keep a number of influential Democrats thus occupied, say for the next 8 months or so.

Shawn Levasseur said...

From time to time some social critic will brand advertising as some sort of mind control. Usually this is presented as a bad thing.

As much as I disagree with the premise, at least such people are acting morally and ethically given those beliefs.

It's those people who think that it is mind control, and then seek how to best manipulated the masses for their own purposes that I worry about. Dr. Western falls into this latter group.

madawaskan said...

Well the whole thing could work backwards couldn't it?

The emotional, irrationality of Democrats-drives Republicans to the polls.

The best campaigners for republicans it's usually the Democrats or their Un- Sister Souljaed surrogates isn't it?

Westen coud have it all wrong-

Code Pink needs to Einstein up.

TMink said...

The good doctor is right when he discusses neural networks and the difficulties surrounding change, but he is missing the meat of the situation. It all boils down to attachment!

Securely attached individuals are able to be productive and responsible, they believe that they are OK and that most of the people around them are OK, they are capable of empathy and soothing themselves.

Insecurely attached individuals are not able to soothe their emotions, they have unmet dependency needs that they act out upon the government. They want a federal government large enough to be the mother that they never had.

What causes insecure attachment? Some of the issues include teenage mothers, unwed mothers, moms who have to rely on daycare immediately, alcohol and drug abuse, or narcissistic mom's who are unable to recognize or care about their children's needs.

It is hard science, from Harlow's monkeys to the new brain scans which show how the orbitofrontal cortex is involved in attachment, thinking while feeling, and self soothing.

I leave it to you to decide the political implications of this science.


Middle Class Guy said...

A third consideration is the credibility of Dr. Westen. He is actively woorking for the Democratic Party. Should anything he says or said be taken seriously? Does the good doctor have credibility or is he just a paid hack?

Pogo said...

Trey, I agree.
The policy implication is that insecurely attached adults require placement in group assisted living centers from the time they 20 years old onward, led in their lives by a Nurse Ratched type to organize their lives and vainly try to fill that God-shaped hole inside them.

The rest of us should be left alone.

ricpic said...

Oh, the foot bone's attached to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone's attached to the knee bone,
The knee bone's attached to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone's attached to the hip bone,
The hip bone's attached to the back bone,
The back bone's attached to the shoulder bone,
The shoulder bone's attached to the neck bone,
The neck bone's attached to the head bone,
Oh Hear The word Ob' The Lord!
Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones,
Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones,
Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones,
Oh Hear The Word Ob' The Lord!

David said...

As luck would have it, I'm currently reading Gustave Le Bon's 1895 book, Psychologie des Foules (well, actually, I'm reading the English translation, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) and he says that politicians can only use emotion to appeal to the electorate.

The elector stickles in particular for the flattery of his greed and vanity. He must be overwhelmed with the most extravagant blandishments, and there must be no hesitation in making him the most fantastic promises. If he is a working man it is impossible to go too far in insulting and stigmatising employers of labour. As for the rival candidate, an effort must be made to destroy his chance by establishing by dint of affirmation, repetition, and contagion that he is an arrant scoundrel, and that it is a matter of common knowledge that he has been guilty of several crimes. It is, of course, useless to trouble about any semblance of proof. Should the adversary be ill-acquainted with the psychology of crowds he will try to justify himself by arguments instead of confining himself to replying to one set of affirmations by another; and he will have no chance whatever of being successful.

The candidate's written programme should not be too categorical, since later on his adversaries might bring it up against him; in his verbal programme, however, there cannot be too much exaggeration. The most important reforms may be fearlessly promised. At the moment they are made these exaggerations produce a great effect, and they are not binding for the future, it being a matter of constant observation that the elector never troubles himself to know how far the candidate he has returned has followed out the electoral programme he applauded, and in virtue of which the election was supposed to have been secured.

In what precedes, all the factors of persuasion which we have described are to be recognised. We shall come across them again in the action exerted by words and formulas, whose magical sway we have already insisted upon. An orator who knows how to make use of these means of persuasion can do what he will with a crowd. Expressions such as infamous capital, vile exploiters, the admirable working man, the socialisation of wealth, &c., always produce the same effect, although already somewhat worn by use. But the candidate who hits on a new formula as devoid as possible of precise meaning, and apt in consequence to flatter the most varied aspirations, infallibly obtains a success.

1895, people. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Middle Class Guy said...

A good read is Edward Bernays "Propaganda". Published in the 1920s, it was used by "great" men such as Hitler, Stalin, FDR, and of course its intended audience, the advertising and marketing industry.

That is what this campaign season is all about; propaganda.

PatCA said...

I would say that Jeremiah Wright just blew "subliminal" out of the water.

joe said...

Westen is one of those charlatans who have convinced themselves that Republicans are successful because they manipulate our neurons, but that the DemocRATS (how's that for subliminal) keep failing because their message just isn't getting through, it is just too rational for the great unwashed.
It never occurs to Westen that maybe people know exactly what the parties stand for and just reject the collectivist solution.

garage mahal said...

I would say that Jeremiah Wright just blew "subliminal" out of the water.

Quit being so judgemental! He's like a crazy uncle - just like your crazy uncles who are pastors in black separatist churches and talk about AIDS being sent into the black population by our government.


David said...

With all the race hustlers that have become so prominent (not you, Barack!), it's nice to see a good, old fashioned hustler who can transcend race.

DADvocate said...

The problem with Westen's assertation that the more times you hear something the more ingrained it becomes doesn't hold true. What words do we here the most when learning language, in English at least? Prepositions, conjuctions and such. What words to we learn to say first? Verbs.

To the chagrin of many a behavioral psychologist, the human brain is much more complex than simple cause and effect, at least for us Republicans.

Step Back said...

As a cardiacly hemorrhaging liberal who on occasion visits righteously right web pages such as this one, it is my observation that ALL human beings are irrational and emotional.

Of course the limbicly lame liberals believe it is only the conservatives who are emotional. The uber righteously right Reaganites are 110% certain that it is only the looney lefties who are emotional.

Obviously only one side can be rationally correct in this mud sling fest.

Middle Class Guy said...

Obviously only one side can be rationally correct in this mud sling fest.

Yep, the Independents.