Blogging the Bookshelf

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“The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation”, Drew Westen

June 14th, 2009 · No Comments · Politics

politicalbrainSynopsis: Psychology professor argues that voters are hardwired to evaluate political questions emotionally, rather than rationally. Well that would explain a few things….

My Take: Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and in The Political Brain, he sets out to summarise the existing empirical research on how voters process political information and form judgements in elections. His conclusions are fairly straightforward; as the synopsis summarises:

The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works. When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on “the issues,” they lose…..

The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

Westen further argues that it is Democratic politicians’ failure to understand the primacy of the emotional associations of a message over its rational content that explains the Democratic party’s continuing electoral failure over the past 30 years:

Democrats, and particularly Democratic strategists, tend to be intellectual. They like to read and think. They thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right.

All that is well and good, but it can be self-destructive politically when alloyed with a belief in the moral superiority of the cerebral at heart, because moral condescension registers with voters…. They do so, I believe, because of an irrational emotional commitment to rationality–one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail….

The paradox of American politics is that when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the party that views itself as the one with the heart (for the middle class, the poor, and the disenfranchised) continues to appeal exclusively to the mind.

Westen claims that the traditional, rationalist Democratic strategy for electoral success of identifying voter need through polling, developing policies to address voter needs and then marketing these policies to voters

…flies in the face of everything we know about how the mind and brain actually work. It flies in the face of 40 years of social science research. And it flies in the face of modern American political history.

The Implications of “The Political Brain”

In light of the above, political strategists need to understand that:

  1. The deeply embedded emotional associations that true partisans (around 30% of the population on each side of the spectrum) have with their party make them extraordinarily difficult to win over with either rational or emotional appeals.
  2. The remaining voters whose emotional associations with political parties are not as deeply embedded are able to be won over. However, emotional appeals to these voters will be much more effective than purely rational appeals. People generally use facts and rational argument to reinforce pre-existing emotional ‘gut’ instincts; if you want to win out over these gut instincts need to win the argument at the emotional level.

Assuming for the moment the legitimacy of the academic research upon which Westen bases these principles, this has a number of consequences for political strategists:

It is pointless trying to appeal to the 30% of voters who are implacably opposed to you.

In fact, demonise and offend them if it will help you win votes amongst the 40% of voters who are up for grabs. As Westin writes:

If you’re a Republican, your focus should be on moving the 10 to 20 percent of the population with changeable minds to the right and bringing your unbending 30 percent to the polls. Republican strategists in fact have had no trouble branding Northern Californians and Northeasterners “latte-drinking liberals.” They know their own party’s kitchen doesn’t have room for a latte maker, and that scalding the other side can bring a little froth to the mouths of their own voters.

The implications for Democrats should be equally clear: Stop worrying about offending those who consider Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell moral leaders because their minds won’t bend to the left.

The most effective appeal is one that plays to pre-existing emotional beliefs

The strongest political appeal is one that activates pre-existing emotional beliefs and reinforces this appeal with supporting facts and rational arguments. However, if the facts don’t support your case and your argument is irrational, an effective appeal to pre-existing emotional beliefs will still be effective.

Emotional appeals can only be countered by more effective, alternative emotional appeals

Responding to an appeal that has activated pre-existing emotional beliefs with rational argument is likely to fail. As facts play a merely supportive role in voter decision-making, you are putting the horse before the cart if you present voters with a rational argument before winning them over in the emotional war. As Westen’s own laboratory research found:

When confronted with potentially troubling political information (TW: ie inconvenient facts/rational arguments), a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress.

The brain registers the conflict between data (TW: Facts) and desire (TW: emotions) and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans largely denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate’s words and deeds.

Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly—as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning. (A full explanation of this research is available online here).

Westen makes the point that the only response to an effective emotional appeal is “an equally compelling emotional appeal – particularly a moral appeal – to many of the same voters whose emotions were activated by the (opponent’s appeal)”.

The impotence of rational responses to emotional attacks is vividly illustrated in a series of examples highlighted in the book and recapped in this clip:

Westen argues that Al Gore should have countered GWB’s insinuations about his character and moral values in the 2000 Presidential Debate, not as he did, with a rational/factual response, but by explicitly picking a fight on the emotions inherent in the issue and responding:

“If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn’t a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father’s own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings.”

“Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbours’ kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.”

In theory I can see what he is trying to achieve with the above lines, but something tells me that these lines wouldn’t go down well in reality. While they clearly articulate a strong emotional argument, the language is so strong that it seems like it would be likely to undermine the emotional message. Maybe that’s just because I am one of the overly rational political strategists Westen criticises in the book.

Understanding conscious and unconscious motivations

There are plenty of other useful insights in this book about the way the brain processes political information. I especially liked Westen’s discussion of the difference between conscious and unconscious motivations revealed by the research of Harvard psychologist David McClelland:

“People act on their conscious motives when they are focusing their conscious attention on them. Conscious motives can override unconscious ones, as when we remind ourselves to be tolerant, compassionate, or fair-minded when we have just met someone who has triggered a stereotype….

Coded racial appeals (TW: dog whistles) present one message consciously and another unconsciously. They provide “plausible deniability” while simultaneously activating unconscious networks that usually work in tandem with the conscious message to ratchet up its emotional power. If you simultaneously activate an unconscious network about scary black men while focusing people’s conscious attention on a furlough program for dangerous criminals, you’ll get a very different effect than if you run the furlough appeal without the unconscious prime (TW: as was the case with the Bush 1 “Willie Horton” Ads)…..

The way to counter these appeals is to engage people’s conscious mind on the issue at hand:

When we talk of ‘consciousness-raising’, this is exactly what we mean: creating or reinforcing a particular set of associations and ‘raising’ them to consciousness.

Obama is clearly going to have to be switched onto this during the next six months. This also seems like a reasonable way that Howard’s dog whistling could have been countered. Retrospect is 20/20 though I guess.

But is There Any Substance to “The Political Brain”

As I mentioned earlier, the implications above only hold if Westen’s fundamental premise, that our emotional mind trumps are rational mind in political decision making, holds true. I’m no psychologist so I’ve no idea of the validity of the research Westen discusses or whether he’s manipulating it to fit his narrative. However, suffice it to say, there are a number of people out there who are highly sceptical of this kind of neural analysis of political decision making and further of the dominance of the emotional brain. David Brooks (who I respect incidentally) really didn’t like this book:

(Westen) takes an interesting dollop of neuroscience and uses it to coat the conventional clichés of the Why Democrats Lose genre.

…it’s rare that one comes across a book that so avidly flatters the prejudices of its partisan readers.

…is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq?

I think there’s an element of truth to Brooks’ criticism (and the fact that it has received a very enthusiastic reception on Kos could be reason for concern). In the long run I think substance has to inevitably trump a rationally-flawed but emotionally-strong approach. The collapse of socialism seems to be a reasonable example of this and the consequences of this being false are frankly quite scary for the democratic system.

However, I do think that the emotional influences that Westen identifies can play a significant role at the margin eg in the short-term between equally substantial (or insubstantial) candidates and between hyper emotionally aware candidates and hyper-emotionally retarded candidates (I’m thinking Bush1 v Dukakis and GWB v Gore here). It can clearly have an influence in individual elections, if not though, the broad sweep of history. In this context, the best approach for political strategists is to be to be aware of this body of research and its implications, but not to bet the bank on it. Make sure that there isn’t an emotional void at the heart of your campaign and that you respond to emotional attacks at an emotional level, but back up this approach with a strong supporting rational case too. If nothing else, it will make you feel better about the democratic process.


In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role…..


  • Tim….
    Good to see you up and running again in the blogosphere, and as Club Troppo notes, using a very elegant strategy to give us your thoughts.