This is your brain on politics

As the US Presidential Election builds to its climax, I just discovered that last month’s (freely available) cover feature for the Observer magazine of the Association for Psychological Science was all about the psychology and neuroscience of politics.

The writer Ian Herbert provides a wide-ranging survey of research in the area, with the main thrust being that the majority of us vote according to our emotionally-driven party political biases, with the facts and figures of policy detail making little impression.

Swing voters too are likely to use mental short-cuts to make their voting decisions. Specifically, people are likely to vote for the candidate who seems most similar to themselves. The kind of people the candidates associate with is also likely to play a key role with swing voters – a phenomenon known as the “proximity effect”.

“This obviously has very real implications for politicians who are constantly trying to distance themselves from controversial figures,” Herbert writes. “Just think of Obama’s difficulties because of Reverend Jeremiah Wright or McCain’s embarrassment over Pastor John Hagee. It also explains why we likely won’t see the President stumping for Republicans this election season.”

Another research finding described by Herbert that’s pertinent to the current election concerns the detrimental effect of negative advertising on voter engagement. Ted Brader has conducted research showing that viewers of positive ads come away feeling more interested in the campaign than viewers of negative ads. I expect that before politicians heed these kind of findings, they’ll need to be convinced that negative campaigning harms their own prospects more than, or at least as much as, it harms their opponents’.

All in all the article makes for an interesting and timely read, although the conclusion does rather leave you feeling that you haven’t learned anything revelatory:

“The implication for politicians is … very clear: ooze charisma. If you can do that, play off the emotions of your constituents in TV commercials, avoid associating with any questionable characters, be as much like ‘the people’ as possible, and, of course, be a member of whichever political party is most popular, then you’re well on your way to being the next president of the United States.”

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to free article: “This is your brain on politics”.