Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Neuroimaging of emotions driving political strategy...

My October 23 post mentioned the work of Westen, who has used functional neuroimaging to show how emotions prevail over reason when people rationalize their political choices. This material - up to date neuroscience of decision making - has been taken up and absorbed as a guide to campaign strategy in an amazingly short time, with democratic party strategists particularly engaged by Westen's recent book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” (Public Affairs).

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. His book takes a very 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.

The recent review of Westen's book by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, notes that Westen has by now given numerous talks to political groups and set up a political consulting company. She notes Bill Clinton's positive reaction to the book, as he "particularly liked the discussion of how one could evoke emotion without being intellectually dishonest.” Cohen's review is worth reading (PDF here).

In this vein, it is interesting that Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker review titled "The Fractured Franchise" has an elegant discussion of evidence that most voters are massively ignorant and misinformed about political reality (PDF here). Thus, even when 'democracy works' the results can be a disaster. (So we should prefer rule by economists?) He reviews the recent book by Bryan Caplan, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics” (Princeton; $29.95). (By the way, see also Menand's earlier article "The Unpolitical Animal." He is a brilliant guy. )

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