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The following is an edited excerpt from David Helfert’s forthcoming book Political Communication in Action, which was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in October.
Consultants spend their careers trying to understand how different kinds of messages are received and processed voters. What determines which messages break through the clutter of communication to be received and considered? What kinds of messages are most likely to cause changes in opinion or belief and motivate people to act? In other words, what works?
Back when I began to learn about writing and producing effective political messages, there were no formal classes or how-to manuals on the effective use of emotion in campaign television spots.
What practitioners knew about it they learned mostly through trial and error. Occasionally—but only occasionally—there were opportunities to conduct the most primitive form of research: individual follow-up conversations with voters who could recall particular radio or television spots and remember their reactions to them. Even then, the spots people remembered, the ones people said got their attention, were those with some level of emotional context. It was not until years later that I learned there were sound scientific explanations for this.
Drew Westen is neither a political scientist nor a communication researcher. He teaches in the Departments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University, and he has conducted and participated in extensive clinical research into the way the human brain receives and processes different kinds of messages.
In the November 2006 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Westen described research using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. It relies on the fact that when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region increases.
Westen wrote, “The findings provided the first neuroimaging evidence for phenomena variously described as motivated reasoning, implicit emotion regulation, and psychological defense. They suggest that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning when people do not have a strong emotional stake in the conclusions reached.”
In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Westen further explained the heightened impact of emotion over pure logic in political messages. He concluded that emotional messages have more impact primarily because of the way our brains are wired. He described an almond-shaped group of neurons called amygdalae, located in each of the brain’s medial temporal lobes. The amygdalae process emotional messages and are where our emotional memories are stored. They are an evolutionarily older part of the brain where the “fight or flight” response was activated in early humans.
According to Westen, emotional messages are processed more quickly because there are more receptors and neural pathways to the amygdalae from the body’s various sensory organs than there are to the prefrontal lobes that process “reasoning” information and stimuli. As a result, messages with an emotional element reach the cerebral cortex with more urgency and impact than messages based on reasoning.
Left Brain, Right Brain
Other neurological studies seem congruent with Westen’s findings. In the 1980s, pop psychology began to describe people as either left or right brained and suggested that the characteristic determined whether they tended to be more artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, emotional, or analytical, depending on which lobes of the brain dominated their thought processing and behavior. The theory that everyone is either one or the other has been roundly disputed in recent years. Now, however, it appears there may be something to the basic idea after all, and that the unique characteristics of the left and right lobes of the brain may have consequences in political communication.
Journalist and author Chris Mooney has written extensively on how different kinds of political messages are received and processed by different people. Mooney has built on Westen’s research about neurological differences in processing varying kinds of messages. In his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, he points to research that finds the predisposition to process stimuli in one lobe of the brain or the other is due to an actual physical difference in the size of the respective lobes.
Some people, says Mooney, actually have a larger right brain lobe, including the limbic system, which supports emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Other people, he says, have a larger left brain lobe and tend to process most information through their prefrontal cortex, the lobes that help in reasoning and logical processing.
Mooney suggests that this neurological difference can reflect political tendencies. In The Republican Brain, Mooney describes “a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 90 University College of London students that found on average, political conservatives actually had a larger right lobe, including the amygdalae, while political liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC),” part of the brain’s frontal lobe, with many links to the prefrontal cortex.
This seems consistent with studies conducted in 2013 by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues at the University of California. Their research was described in “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” in the international online journal PLOS ONE.
The study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. Schreiber’s team took the brain activity measurement of eighty-two people and cross-referenced them with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data. They found that Republicans tended to use their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.
Schreiber claims the insula/amygdala brain function model offers an 82.9 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican. In comparison, the longstanding model using the party affiliation of parents to predict a child’s affiliation is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.
Mooney cites other academic research findings indicating that people whose limbic system is more involved in processing information are less likely to change their minds. Once they have arrived at a position on an issue that is congruent with their belief system and values, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with irrefutable evidence to support a different viewpoint. They will actually reject or discount facts or attempt to discredit the source of facts that conflict with their position.
A series of related behavioral concepts could shed light on why different people seem to react differently to various political messages. One of the best known concepts is motivated reasoning, which is based on research findings, such as that described by Mooney, that some people tend to process most information through the prefrontal cortex of their brains while others tend to receive and process information through the limbic system.
Other research has found that subjects who tend to process information through the prefrontal lobes of the brain tend to be more open to new information, and to be more politically liberal. Those subjects who tend to process information through the emotion-centers in the brain tend to be more politically conservative.
Several recent studies have explored various aspects of the apparent differences in how people perceive the same events and issues. An extensive 2012 international research project involving five different studies, thousands of participants, and two different cultures was coordinated by scholars from the University of Virginia and two universities in China. The study’s report was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2014. It concludes that basic cultural thought styles may help explain why liberals and conservatives see political issues differently—that political differences and divisions are partly cultural divisions.
These researchers argue that liberal culture tends to be more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual over group identities. They also conclude that liberalism is associated with cities, which are centers of self-expression and nonconformity. Conservatism, on the other hand, tends to be associated with rural areas, with more tightknit communities. Conservatism is also associated with interconnected groups, such as churches, fraternities, and the military.
“This study shows that the two sides in the ‘culture war,’ conservatives and liberals, really approach the world as if they came from two very different cultures,” said study leader Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia doctoral candidate in cultural psychology. Of course, partisans on both sides believe different facts, use different economic theories, and hold differing views of history. But might the differences run even deeper? Do liberals and conservatives process the same set of facts with different cultural thought styles?
Yes, the study concludes. And it indicates that “political differences and divisions are partly cultural divisions, and they can be studied—and perhaps bridged—as such.”
Other behavioral research has found that certain emotions are more powerful than others and tend to lead to stronger reactions. Generally, negative emotions, such as fear, distrust, and anger, are stronger motivators than positive emotions, such as hope or pride.
Even among negative emotions, researchers found that, while fear is one of the strongest motivators, anger is more likely to generate action. Fear causes many people to seek more information before they take action. Anger frequently moves people to act without seeking further information.
Another 2013 study, “Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences,” found that fear can play a very real role in influencing political attitudes on hot-button issues like immigration.
The summary, published in the American Journal of Political Science, indicates that individuals genetically predisposed toward fear tend to have more negative opinions of people from other races and ethnic groups and tend to hold attitudes that are more anti-immigration and pro-segregation.
None of this is to suggest that an effective political communicator needs to be an expert in behavioral science or cognition research. But the people who develop political messages are learning how to say things in a way that has the best chance of prompting their audience to do what they want. Research findings like those just discussed provide part of the background for the practices communicators use to be effective.