What does neuroscience say about how our brains make political decisions?
I spoke with Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University who has studied political decision-making for over two decades. He told me that much more hinges on our emotions than the parts of our brains responsible for rational reasoning.
Westen wrote an influential book in 2008 called The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. At the time, Bill Clinton said it was “the most interesting, informative book on politics I have read in many years.” The success of the book steered Westen’s career to political consulting. His firm Westen Strategies advises candidates and organizations on the Left on how to incorporate brain science research into political messaging.
To win elections, Westen argues, candidates must master the “marketplace of emotions” rather than the “marketplace of ideas.” The key to swaying voters is to trigger the right emotional network of unconscious ideas, memories, images, and words, not so much to reason with them.
What his thesis means in practice is that politicians need to speak to voters in plain words and elicit their unconscious gut reactions.
On the issue of abortion, for example, rather than making policy or constitutional arguments, or using academic terms, he advises Democrats to say to their Republican opponents: “We believe every woman has the right to choose the father of her child. You believe that every rapist has the chance to choose the mother of his.” That’s an emotional gut punch.
What does Westen think of the phrase, “Democracy is on the ballot”? Does it speak to the emotional or the rational parts of our brains? “Despite it being too abstract,” he says the message got through to people in this election because they heard it repeatedly. At the same time, an alarming number of Republican candidates refused to commit to accepting election results if they lost. An even stronger message from Democrats, says Westen, would have been something that speaks closer to people’s experience. “Something like, we’ve always gotten to pick our leaders in this country. If we choose people who don’t believe in that, we’re never going to get to do that again,” he said.
Given that dozens of election deniers were elected across the country, I asked Westen how our brains fare when presented with facts that conflict with our political beliefs. Do facts change our minds? “Facts are not likely to change your mind and in fact they’re likely to move you in the opposite direction,” Westen said.
In 2004, during the run up to the John Kerry-George W. Bush presidential election, Westen conducted a brain scan study where committed Democrats and Republicans were tasked with assessing clearly contradictory statements made by both Kerry and Bush.
For example, in one hypothetical the subjects were told that in a 1996 appearance on Meet The Press, Kerry said that Social Security is a generational responsibility and everything should be on the table to keep it solvent (including, Kerry implied, the possibility of reform). But in a 2004 appearance on the same program, Kerry said we should never touch Social Security by any means. The subjects were also shown a similar hypothetical that featured Bush’s inconsistent statements.
The subjects were asked whether Kerry’s and Bush’s statements were consistent.
Both groups “twirled the kaleidoscope of their minds to come to the conclusion that they wanted to come to,” Westen says. Republicans had no trouble identifying the inconsistency of Kerry’s statements but deemed Bush’s statements consistent. The Democrats found Kerry’s statements to be consistent but Bush’s inconsistent.
For both the Democrats and the Republicans, the parts of the brain that were most activated were the orbital frontal cortex, which regulates emotions, and the anterior cingulate, which is linked to conflict monitoring and resolution (“This goes against what I want to believe”). The part of the brain that is usually responsible for rational reasoning was not activated for either group when they were asked about the candidate they supported.
This pattern continued across questions. But the researchers expected as much. “What was really scary,” says Westen, is when about 20 seconds later, once subjects became emotionally comfortable with their answers, there were bursts of dopamine, which is involved in reward and pleasure circuits in the brain. “Essentially what was happening was they were getting reinforced for having just lied to themselves and ended up liking their candidate more.” This finding, Westen notes, is consistent with what recently happened after the January 6 hearings when Trump’s favorability rating with Republicans increased by 3 percentage points.
So if our brain unconsciously rewards us for lying to ourselves, what hope is there for an honest electorate? Is there anything we can do? “If I had the answer to that question, I would be a much better therapist than I ever was,” Westen jokes. “I think the answer’s probably going to take us more into economics and law than it is psychology.”