Reading the Mind Of the Body Politic

By: Wall Street Journal

The subconscious is the new frontier in politics. But is it good for democracy?

During last Sunday’s Republican presidential debate in Miami, Mitt Romney declared he was the only candidate who had stopped talking about universal health care and “actually got the job done.” Across the country, in San Francisco, five volunteers watched the debate while wearing electrode-studded headsets that track electrical activity in the brain.

A wave of research suggests political decisions often occur at the subliminal level. WSJ’s Alexandra Alter reports on how neuromarketers and political strategists are focusing on an uncharted electoral frontier–the brain.

When Mr. Romney said the words “got the job done,” there was a pronounced shift in activity in their prefrontal lobes. “They liked what they were hearing,” said Brad Feldman, an analyst with EmSense Corp., the company that conducted the test.

This campaign season, the newest thing in presidential politics is neuroscience. Driven by new research that suggests monitoring voters’ brains, pupils and pulses may be more effective than listening to what they say, EmSense is one of a cottage industry of neuromarketing firms across the country that are pitching their services to presidential campaigns. Seattle’s Lucid Systems is trumpeting a biofeedback program that tracks brain waves, pupil dilation, perspiration and facial-muscle movements, while a Chicago company says it is talking to campaigns about its voice-analysis technology, which is used in insurance-fraud cases. Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist at Emory University who has used brain scans to study voters, recently launched Westen Strategies, a consultancy that promises to help clients understand the “neural networks” that govern political behavior. Earlier this year, staffers working for John Edwards flew Mr. Westen in to watch the candidate on the campaign trail and offer feedback (Mr. Westen and a campaign spokesman declined to elaborate). Campaign-strategy consultant, TargetPoint, which is working for Mr. Romney, has begun running Internet surveys that test voters’ subconscious impressions and is considering conducting research with brain scanners.

The goal is to deploy the same techniques currently used to track the way consumers respond to cars, perfume, videogames, Web browsers and movie trailers. The information the researchers gather could help candidates make any number of adjustments, including which issues to discuss in which states, what specific terms to use in stump speeches and what cadence or facial expressions to use when delivering them. “Political marketing is a fairly pure analog to commercial marketing,” says David Remer, chairman of Lucid Systems. “I’m looking at a package of shampoo the same way I’m looking at my next leader.”

Some prominent scientists say neuromarketing firms may be promising more than they can deliver. Liz Phelps, the director of a neuroscience laboratory at New York University who has reviewed recent studies, is critical of the idea that images of brain activity can predict how people will behave — especially when it comes to politics. Last month, the journal “Nature” criticized a study conducted by a neuromarketing firm this year that had used brain scans to measure people’s responses to the 2008 presidential candidates. “Does anyone need a $3 million scanner to conclude that Hillary needs to work on her support from swing voters?” it said.

One reason these tactics are catching on is the increasing wealth of campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the candidates have spent $420 million in the first nine months of this year, which is more than double the $182 million spent in the first nine months of 2003. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford political scientist who works with the American National Election Studies, an academic research project that surveys voter attitudes and behaviors, says candidates may be more interested in measuring the deeper biases of voters in a campaign whose contenders include a Mormon, a woman and an African-American. “We need a tricky way to get into people’s minds and find out who they’re going to vote for instead of asking directly,” Mr. Krosnick says.

Snap Judgments

Researchers say the modern realities of politics demand that candidates find ways to reach people who are distracted and prone to making snap judgments about issues. TargetPoint, the Virginia-based political and business consulting firm that worked for the Bush campaign in 2004 and is now working for Mr. Romney (his campaign paid the consultancy $345,000 last quarter, according to Federal Election Commission records) is seeking ways around the problem. Alex Lundry, the company’s research director, says traditional methods of polling voters are sometimes inaccurate. “People may say one thing in a focus group and do another thing in the voting booth,” he says. To get beyond this, Mr. Lundry says, the company developed an Internet survey that asks voters questions like which candidate they support. But rather than just tallying the results, the survey tests their subconscious attitudes by recording how quickly the respondents enter their answers — the theory being that faster responses indicate stronger feelings.

So far, TargetPoint has used the survey four times, sampling 3,200 Republicans who are likely primary voters. Alex Gage, Mr. Romney’s director of strategy, says the campaign is looking at the reaction-time data to gauge the “intensity” of voters’ views. “It has a lot to do with how mature an opinion may be,” he says.

Mr. Westen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in personality disorders, is author of a 2007 book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” In his studies, which have involved placing partisan voters in brain scanners, he found that when voters look at pictures of candidates or listen to their statements, the regions of the brain associated with emotion are more engaged than the regions governing thought. Instead of detailing a ten-point health-care plan, he says, politicians would be better off talking about health care in moral terms.

An October Federal Election Commission filing shows Mr. Edwards’s campaign paid $1,951 to Westen Strategies for air fare. Mark Kornblau, Mr. Edwards’s traveling press secretary, said Mr. Westen had come to observe the candidate and give him some feedback. “He has gained notoriety and respect in the Democratic party with his book,” Mr. Kornblau says. “It was helpful to hear his ideas.” Mr. Westen declined to comment on the discussion.

Presidential campaigns have always played to the emotions of voters: Thomas Jefferson’s opponents warned that if he was elected, murder, incest, robbery and rape would flourish, while Andrew Jackson’s detractors circulated a portrait of him as Shakespeare’s villain Richard III. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign aired a famous 1964 ad that cut from a girl picking flowers to a mushroom cloud. The notion that candidates are sold to the public much like products became a standard cultural trope with the 1969 book “The Selling of the President,” which argued that Richard Nixon’s campaign profited from selling spin over substance.

Since 1969, according to the American Association of Political Consultants, the number of consultants has risen from a handful to more than 1,500. As their ranks have grown, their methods have become more sophisticated and data-driven. In the 1980s, focus groups became popular, as did “dial groups” where participants register their reactions to candidates with electronic dials. The most cited innovation in 2004 was microtargeting, a strategy borrowed from corporate marketing firms that involves tailoring specific messages to individual households based on their consumer profiles — what magazines they subscribe to or the brands of cars they buy.

In recent years, advances in brain-scanning technology have allowed researchers to identify areas of the brain involved in political beliefs and in some cases, to conclude that political views and behaviors are hard-wired. A recent study conducted by New York University psychology professor David Amodio, which was published this September in the journal Nature Neuroscience, tracked electrical fluctuations in the brains of 43 self-identified liberals and conservatives while they performed a simple cognitive task. The results suggested liberals were better than conservatives at adapting their behavior to new circumstances.

Grading on Looks

Another recent study by a pair of Princeton psychologists found that when test subjects are asked to choose between two unfamiliar candidates based solely on how competent they look, the results can predict the election outcome with 70% accuracy. (The researchers used photos from candidates in 124 gubernatorial elections from 1996 to 2006, and 29 Senate races from 2006 and made sure test subjects did not recognize the politicians.)

EmSense was founded in California in 2004 by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop videogame controllers that could be operated by brain activity. It has since moved into market research, testing people’s subconscious reactions to video games and TV commercials. Earlier this year the company began running studies on presidential debates and presidential campaign ads in a bid to expand into politics.

Last Sunday at a San Francisco hotel ballroom, EmSense researchers fitted five volunteers, all undecided Republicans, with battery-powered headsets made of elastic and lined with bits of copper. As they watched the debate on a big screen, the wireless units, which the company calls “EmGear,” collected data on their skin temperature, heart rate, eye-blinking and brain activity and beamed them to a bank of computers. The data were run through a formula created by EmSense to identify whether a response was positive or negative.

When John McCain ran through a list of Hispanic politicians who had endorsed him, the company says the brain-wave frequencies of the test subjects stayed flat, indicating a lack of interest. When Mike Huckabee argued that withdrawing troops from Iraq would create a power vacuum for terrorists, the volunteers’ adrenaline spiked. Fred Thompson’s discussion of health care caused a pattern of brain activity that suggests the viewers thought about what he said, but didn’t like it. The company, which says it plans to begin contacting campaigns later this month, says it could help candidates vet advertisements or hone their language and delivery in speeches.

Politics has always lagged behind business in adopting new marketing methods. One reason is cost: A typical brain-scan study costs around $10,000 for a small sample and can run up to $50,000 for multiple demographics. Moreover, candidates may shy away from tactics that could be seen as calculating or manipulative. “Taken to its logical limit,” says Martha Farah, director of the neuroethics program at the University of Pennsylvania, “it’s a kind of mind reading.”

Carter Eskew, a Democratic strategist who isn’t affiliated with a 2008 campaign, says the wide adoption of these techniques is inevitable. “I’m very open and receptive to this, because political communication has been stuck in recent years,” he says. In previous election cycles, “focus groups were considered tacky, [as were] dial groups, and these were taboos that were quickly broken.”

Write to Alexandra Alter at

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