Neuroscience of voting

As the first presidential debate nears, there’s a lot of excitement (and worry) regarding the election. Today, Salon had an interesting piece on voter behavior and irrational attachment to ideologies and candidates. Recounting a recent psychology paper’s punchline:

The article’s conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

Slate had a story (“Why is every neuropundit such a raging liberal?“) about how neuroscience and neuromarketing are changing political consulting (also here’s a link to a similar story in NYT last week):

According to a study of political psychology published last Thursday in Science, conservatives tend to be the jumpier lot.

The researchers called 46 political partisans into their laboratory at the University of Nebraska, affixed electrodes to their fingertips and eyelids, and measured sweat output and eye blinks in response to a series of startling stimuli. (Subjects were forced to endure images of bloody faces and maggot-infested wounds, as well as sudden blasts of white noise.) The results: Social conservatives—those who supported the death penalty, the Patriot Act, prayer in school, and the like—sweated more, and blinked more intensely, than the liberals.

The Slate and NYT articles in particular suggest something that I have long believed to be true. The Republican “story” is, from a neuroscience perspective, simply better because it tends to view the world in clear-cut terms with no middle ground and, thus, is more effective at rallying emotional processing areas of the brain (eg. limbic system). It is well-known in neuroscience that emotionally salient events that activate these limbic structures are better remembered than less charged memories. The Democratic “story” tends to be more complicated with shades of gray and therefore requires higher-level processing (eg. cortical areas involved in conflict resolution). Clearly, I’m oversimplifying things here a bit (see, I’m designing this post to appeal to your limbic system!) but I think that this hypothesis might have some legs.

Of course, if it’s true, why doesn’t everyone vote Republican if that story is the neurally more rewarding one? Or perhaps the more relevant question: Is it even possible for the Democrats to tap into the similar evolutionarily older limbic structures that seem to dominate the Republican story?

Also, although I prefer Neurodudes to stick with the science over any partisan politics, I must say I found this statistic interesting (from the Slate article):

in 2002, Daniel Klein and Andrew Western tallied the political affiliations of professors at Berkeley and Stanford and found that even in the hard sciences, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a factor of almost 8 to 1. Among professors of neurology and neuroscience, Klein and Western counted 68 registered Democrats against just six Republicans.

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One thought on “Neuroscience of voting

  1. What? Profs at Berkeley and Stanford lean to the left? Who knew? 🙂

    Perhaps part of the reason that a fear-based message doesn’t win every election is that many people don’t react strongly to that kind of message. The people who didn’t react to the pictures of maimed people and spiders probably don’t react strongly to nuclear research in Iran or instability in Pakistan – they may be intellectually concerned about these kinds of developments, but don’t process them as real threats to their personal safety.

    Roger

    Like

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