With 2008 fast approaching, America is shifting into election mode. Clinton and Obama are the topic of much conversation and speculation. Regardless of how potential voters feel about the specifics of those candidates’ proposed policy reforms, both candidates stir emotional responses based on the mere fact that they look different from previous presidents or presidential hopefuls. In fact, emotions, good and bad, are stirred by all the candidates for one reason or another.
Do such emotional responses play a significant role in who gets elected or do most voters seek rationally to maximize their personal interests in deciding how to vote? Or does some other calculus or process ultimately determine who wins and who loses?
Psychologist Drew Westen — currently the go-to scholar among democratic strategists — believes that emotion comes first. The New York Times article excerpted below explains Weston’s role in the upcoming election, and his take on why and how people make the decisions they do.
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Nearly every campaign season there is someone with “the big idea” — the brilliant brainstorm that everyone seems to believe will get some lucky candidate elected president. And nearly every campaign season there is a long line of consultants, party leaders and scholars, each of whom is convinced that he’s the one.
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This year, among Democrats, one such contender is Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of a new book called “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” (Public Affairs). Dr. Westen takes the unlikely position that the Democratic Party should, for the most part, forget about issues, policies, even facts, and instead focus on feelings.
What he calls “the dispassionate view of the mind which has guided Democratic thinking for 40 years” is deeply flawed, Dr. Westen argues. What decides elections, he maintains, are people’s emotional reactions, even if they don’t know it.
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Erica Payne, a political strategist, said of Dr. Westen, “This is the ‘it’ guy for the season.”. Dr. Westen appeared at one at the Regency Hotel in New York in February. Fearing that, like some academics, he might ramble on too long, Ms. Payne worked out a signal — a pull on her ear — to tell Dr. Westen to wrap up quickly. So Ms. Payne pulled, and Dr. Westen announced that he would skip ahead because he was running out of time. “The whole audience said, ‘NO-O-O-O,’ ” Ms. Payne recalled. The crowd was enthralled: there was, she said, “this ‘a-ha’ moment.”
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“The Political Brain” takes a different tack than, say, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” by Thomas Frank or Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason,” which try to explain voter behavior in terms of self-interest and factual analysis.
“My message is the exact opposite,” Dr. Westen said. They’re explaining “why we should be more rational” instead of “why we should bring more passion into politics.”
In recent years, studying the psychological roots of political affiliation has become something of a growth industry among academics, particularly since brain imaging became widely available.
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In his book, Dr. Westen describes an experiment he conducted in the fall of 2004 on committed Democrats and Republicans. Subjects had their brains scanned while they viewed slides containing pairs of contradictory statements from their favored candidate (George W. Bush or John Kerry). The subjects found ways to deny that there was any significant contradiction, and calm returned.
“The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs” — even false ones — that would eliminate the distress each subject was experiencing, he writes. Meanwhile, the reasoning centers of the brain — the part to which writers like Mr. Gore appeal — were quiet.
What’s more, the neural circuits responsible for positive emotions turned on as soon as the subject found a way to resolve the contradictions — reinforcing the faulty reasoning. Dr. Westen summed it up: people think with the gut.
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This is not to say that political choices are completely irrational. As the renowned neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown, the brain’s emotional systems are an essential part of logical thinking.
But when it comes to swaying voters, Dr. Westen insists that triggering the right emotional network — that unconscious bundle of ideas, images, words, memories, feelings — is much more important and effective than appealing to reason.
Consider the associations that are likely to appear when a city dweller hears the word “gun”: handguns, murder, mugging, robbery, killing and crime. But for rural residents, Dr. Westen says, “gun” is likely to activate an entirely different network that includes: my daddy, my son, gun collection, rifle, deer, buddies, protecting my family, my rights.
So stop talking about “gun control,” Dr. Westen advises, since the word “control” suggests curtailing freedom, and instead look for ways to tap into a network that helps your cause. Democrats, he says, should link to the network of fear that guns in the hands of terrorists and criminals trigger.
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As Dr. Westen sees it, the decision to keep quiet when confronted with negative attacks or difficult and controversial subjects like race, abortion and gay rights is always a mistake. “Democrats run from every issue where there’s passion involved,” he complains. “If you don’t say anything, you are giving them” — your opponents — “the right to define the public’s feeling.”
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Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, said, “Reasoning, when we do it, is mostly to find justification for what we already believe.”
Many of Dr. Westen’s indictments of previous Democratic advertisements, speeches and strategies — from the failure to strike back to the mind-numbing lists of statistics to the lack of emotional power — are not new. Yet even those who agree with his analysis may criticize Dr. Westen for using the same kind of manipulative techniques that he takes Republicans to task for.
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Yet there is a more fundamental question: Without relying on reasoned analysis, what is the basis of one party’s claim to have a superior agenda to their opponents?
“I would pose the issue as one between two competing value systems, not between competing plans or policies,” he said, and that is what does and should determine their choices.
Ultimately what led Dr. Westen to write about others’ political passion was his own. “I couldn’t stand where the country was going,” he said.
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To read this article in its entirety, click here. For a previous Situationist post discussing Westen’s book, see “Your Brain on Politics.” For previous Situationist posts about the 2008 presidential election, see “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”