Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

_The Political Brain:  The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation_ by Drew Westen
NY:  Pubic Affairs, 2007
ISBN-13:  978-1-58648-425-5

(xiv)  But the political brain did something we _didn't_ predict.  Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned _on_.  The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling _better_.  It worked overtime to feel _good_, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.  These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their "fix," giving a new meaning to the term _political junkie_.
NB:  Maybe my own partisan prejudices are showing but the questions Westen highlights from this study of political contradictions compares Kerry "flip-flopping" on Gulf War I with Bush expressing support for the troops while cutting funding for veteran health care:  words against deeds. 

Also note the relation to addiction.  We live in a society that is increasingly organized around addictive processes.  This is a fundamental truth that is almost entirely ignored.
(16)  Behind every reasoned decision is a reason for deciding.  We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger, or contempt.  We are not _moved_ by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance.

(35)  For example, people are prone to the _availability bias_, by which they may overestimate the frequency (or danger) of an event on the basis of how readily it comes to mind (i.e., on how available it is to their consciousness).

(40)  Like Roosevelt, he [Clinton] understood the power of a one-two punch in politics:  following an emotional appeal that draws his audience in with some specifics about what exactly he is going to do to make their lives betters.

(65)  Research shows that even _subliminal_ presentation of black faces activates the amygdala in whites, and implicit racial appeals are more effective than explicit ones because they don't raise people's conscious attitudes toward racism.
NB:  Dog whistle politics works for both the dogs in the pack and those who pick up on the signal subliminally.

(72)  But why do people often show altruism toward others who are completely unrelated to them, such as saving a comrade in battle?  The same reason other animals do:  natural selection favors animals that practice _reciprocal altruism_, the tendency to help each other out, when the benefits of cooperation are likely to exceed the costs over time.

(108)  When we left the cognitive constraints out of the model entirely, using only emotional constraints as predictors, we were able to predict people's judgments about impeachment [of Clinton] with _85 percent accuracy_.  Cognitive constraints essentially bought us only a 3 percent increment in prediction.

(119)  First, just as positive and negative emotion emerge as distinct dimensions from studies of people's emotional experience, the same two dimensions emerged from people's feelings toward presidential candidates, and they were not simply opposites.  The same person who could feel warm toward Carter could also feel angry toward him - a finding whose implications for running an emotionally compelling campaign cannot be overstated as will become clear.

(120)  Policies _are_ related to voting, but not directly.  Policies matter _to the extent that they influence voters' emotions_.

(122)  But the problem is not just that voters need to be made aware of their material interests.  They need to _feel_ that someone is looking out both for their interests and for the _values_ that give their lives meaning.

(135)  Later that evening, I turned to a colleague, perplexed, and wondered how someone with such a track record at making things happen, shaking hands and kissing babies, could be so unaware of the emotion in the room.  She responded, without blinking an eye, "He understands power.  He doesn't understand emotion."

(138)  But my point is much more specific:  _managing positive and negative feelings should be the primary goals of a political campaign._  It is important to engage on issues and offer some specific positions.  There is plenty of time for that in a campaign.  But candidates should use policy positions to _illustrate_ their principles, not the other way around.

(140-141)  What a voter needs to know most in deciding whether to vote for one candidate or the other are four things, roughly in this order: First, do they share the values that matter most to me, and do they care about people like me?  Second, can I trust them to represent me faithfully?  Third, do they have the personal qualities that lead me to believe they'll do right by my values and interests, such as integrity, leadership, and competence?  And fourth, if there's an issue that really matters to me (e.g., the Iraq War) what's their stand on it, and can I trust them to think about it and make decisions which I would probably make if I had all the information they'll have as my elected representative?

(158-159)  Like any good political story, however, the conservative narrative is defined as much by what it neglects to mention as by what it mentions.  In fact, it has four major elements of narrative incoherence.

The first and most fundamental (because most of the others derive from it) is the failure to explain the _intent_ of the villain, who seems to be little more than a Manichean, Ann-Coulteresque liberal who does evil for the sheet pleasure of liberal evildoing.   On the face of it, it seems rather unlikely that half of Americans wish ill on their own country.

Second, the story leaves out the reason liberals began to "tinker" with the free market:  because during the Great Depression, unfettered capitalism failed.  Government regulation was the answer to a problem, not a spontaneously generated evil plot from a James Bond movie.  And as for those failed social experiments, they, too, reflected the market failures of capitalism, the fact that capitalism had not only recruited and maintained slavery for two centuries in America but had left almost 20 percent of the population in poverty as of 1960.  Census data show that after less than a decade of those "failed social experiments," that percent had dropped by half.
A third element of narrative incoherence is the suggestion of a liberal assault on God.  Why, in a nation that is roughly 85 percent Christian, would half the country want to wage war against the Almighty, who presumably will have the last word?  The assault was not in fact on religion but on the theocratic imposition of _particular_ creeds - precisely the kind of religious encroachment that had led many of those who founded this country to flee religious persecution and come to the New World.

Then, there's the matter of race, which creates a fourth element of narrative incoherence.  Why would anyone who lives in a local area with its own mores (which is all of us) want the federal government to step in to tell us what to do?  The reason is that just as unregulated capitalism can produce market failures, unregulated democracy can produce "democracy failures," in which a majority can discriminate against a minority with relative impunity.  In such cases, a larger majority (in this case, an entire nation) may need to step in to regulate these failures.

(160)  The failure of Democrats to challenge the conservative narrative at its core reflects, I believe, less a failure of imagination than a failure of nerve, a fear of aggression that remains one of the genuine Achilles' heels of the left.
NB:  Probably true as far as it goes but the fundamental fact is that Dems and Reps have some of the same constituencies - corporations and interest groups, AIPAC, AARP...

But once again we see an extraordinary element of narrative incoherence.  "Getting government off our backs" and "states' rights" bear no logical relation to one another.  What difference does it make whether the government on our backs or in our bedroom s is the federal government or the state government?

(161)  In 1980, as today, Americans were deeply conflicted about race.  Many whites had easily triggered negative feelings toward black people, but they no longer believed in overt discrimination.  Reagan was playing with fire using language associated with an era most Americans wanted to put behind them.  a skillfully worded, direct assault on Reagan's character, aimed at unveiling one of the seamy underbellies of his antifederalist agenda, may well, I believe, have dealt a lethal blow to his candidacy, in large measure because it would have challenged his greatest asset:  his likeability.
NB:  Reagan was probably not, personally, an active racist

(173)  If you cede the contentious issues, you cede passion to the other side.  And given that people vote their passions, that's always a losing strategy.
(182-183)  The Republican story is incoherent in a second respect, which Democrats frequently note parenthetically but rarely use systematically to attack their opponent's position on abortion:  it is in direct conflict with the master narrative of the conservative movement, namely that government should be small and nonintrusive.  It's hard to argue that government should stop interfering with the right of corporations to emit mercury that is now poisoning the bloodstream of 20 percent of pregnant women while simultaneously arguing that government has a compelling interest in forcing them to carry an unwanted child.
NB:  Every miscarriage will have to be investigated as a possible abortion.  Anti-abortion people should also have to answer whether they believe that the pregnant women who get abortions should be imprisoned as well.

(206)  Those on the left also do themselves - and the earth - a disservice by continuing to trot out words such as _environment_ and _environmentalism_ in public discourse.  Not only are these tired workhouses emotionally bland, but they are also precisely the words Republicans have successfully branded as the domain of effete, tree-hugging, spotted owl-saving liberals.  Instead, we should be using more evocative, less abstract, more emotionally compelling, and hence less readily co-opted phrases.  We should be talking about protecting the land of our forefathers, the air we breathe, the water our children drink, the streams we fish, the game we hunt, the trails we climb with our children, the gracious majesty of our landscape, and God's earth.  These are evocative images, some for most Americans, and others for distinct emotional constituencies.  They say exactly the same thing as "the environment," but they speak the language of Georgia and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan rather than the language of Northeastern environmentalists.

(215)  For example, the rural farm and cattle country of South Dakota and Wyoming would rarely be considered fertile soil for Deomocrats. But something has recently changed so dramatically that a well-crafted appeal could likely turn these areas blue as fast as you can say "catastrophic climate change."  As of this writing, the Plains states (including North and South Dakots, Wyoming, Mebraska, and Montana) are facing a disaster of seismic proportions that appears to be one of the first post-Hurricane Katrina canaries in the coal mine of climate change In Southe Dakota, up to 90 percent of the traditional watering holes for cattle have dried up, ranchers can't find food for their cattle in blistering, unprecedented heat, and farms are being destroyed by the heat and drought.  This economic and ecological disaster has actually been in the making for several years, with startlingly little snow in the winter and record heat in the summer several years running, leading to dry, scorched earth.  Recent research suggests that because of global warming, American's "breadbasket" - it's huge swath of land that supports the harvesting of wheat - is moving north into Canada, as American land becomes decreasingly hospitable to the growth of wheat.

Anyone who has seen Al Gore's _An Inconvenient Truth_ will recognize immediately that this is precisely the kind of catastrophe scientists predicted, which Gore illustrated graphically in his Power Point presentation, and the Bush administration and its REpublican allies in Congress repeatedly called "just a theory" while they abandoned the Kyoto Treaty.  A barrage of ads juxtaposing images of cattle dying, land drying up, and dead cornfields with footage from Gore's movie predicting exactly what has happened  and Republican leaders declaring it a hoax could readily convert hundreds of thousands of Great Plains voters to Democratic voters

(243)  Social psychologists discovered over fifty years ago that the best way to overcome antagonism between groups is to have them work together toward shared goals.
NB:  There is no unifying vision.

(245)  As Corker began gaining in the polls following the "Call Me" ad, he followed it with a radio ad, whose cover story was again to compare and contrast the two candidates on the extent to which they were "real" Tennesseans.  In the radio ad, music plays continuously in the background, but every time the narrator talks about Ford, the listener is exposed to the barely audible sound of what, with close listening, is the sound of an African tom-tom.

The ads run against Ford suggest that Rove and crew are well aware of recent research on subliminal priming.  It is difficult otherwise to explain the tom-toms, and I have not heard an alternative explanation for them.
NB:  In a discussion of the "Call Me" Corker TV ad against Ford, I heard Evan Thomas, the associate editor of Newsweek, suggest that maybe perhaps the racist connotations of that ad were an honest mistake with no ulterior motives on the part of the Republican camp.  He was willing to bend over backwards all the way to the ground for Corker.

(264)  Readers familiar with popular writing on framing may wonder why I have introduced the language of networks in this book rather than sticking with the now more familiar concept of frames.  Although I  suspect one could get to many of the same places with the frame concept, the language of networks has a number of advantages, including its more direct links to the way the brain works and its ability to address conflicts among and within networks, conflicts and compromises among conscious and unconscious networks, nonlinguistic networks involving sounds and images, and, most importantly, emotions associated through learning and experience with ideas and images encoded on networks. None of this is to diminish the concept of frames, which has proven useful in  multiple domains, including politics.
NB:  Networks of connotations
Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg

(272)  But if you think in terms of principled stands rather than policy statements, and if you bear in mind our evolutionary heritage (i.e., the things we evolved to care about), it isn't difficult to generate an emotionally compelling stand that Democrats could have used everywhere in both election years:

This administration has so badly misled the American people about Iraq that it would be irresponsible for me to pretend to have some detailed plan before I've been in the position to ask the hard questions of our generals and get some real answers.  But I _can_ tell you the _principle_ I'll use in any vote I cast on the Iraq war, or in any other situation that might put our troops in harm's way:  _If I wouldn't send my child, I won't send yours._


(288)  Emotions are contagious.  An emerging body or research suggests that when we watch other people do or feel something, neurons became active in the same regions of our brains as if we were doing of feeling those things themselves.

(295)  A recent study by Princeton researchers asked subjects to view photographs of the winners and losers of House and Senate races from 2000, 2002, and 2004 with whom they were unfamiliar.  For each pair of candidates, subjects rated which candidate seemed more competent, trustworthy, honest, and so forth.  Remarkably, their judgments of a dimension that included competence predicted the winner about 70 percent of the time, even when they had only _1 second_ to make their judgment.

Competence was the only dimension that predicted winners and losers;  ratings of trustworthiness and likeability didn't predict anything.

(296)  A recent study similarly predicted winners and losers from 10-second slices of behavior with the sound turned off, using governors' races from 1988 to 2002.  Subjects' simple ratings of who they thought would win was roughly three times as good a predictor of outcome as the state's economic condition, which is one of the major variables typically used to predict electoral success, and as good a predictor as incumbency, which is a strong predictor of outcomes in gubernatorial elections.  The only variable that was more predictive was the amount of money spent on the campaign.
NB:  Watch for non-verbal clues by turning the sound off.

(300-301)  In 1993, Roger Masters and Denis Sullivan wrote a brilliant summary of research on "Nonverbal Behavior and Leadership" that should be known to every candidate, campaign manager, and political strategist...  They found that when different presidential candidates displayed the same emotions (happiness, fear, and anger), they did so in very different ways.  Ronald Reagan could excite positive emotions even in _Democrats_ - as long as they watched him with the sound turned off...  Voters unconsciously register natural movements of the face and body that convey emotional signals, and candidates differ substantially in the signals they send.

(306)  But the reality is that the best way to elicit enthusiasm in the marketplace of emotions is to _tell the truth_.  There is nothing more compelling in politics than a candidate who is genuine.

(326-327)  People without conscience respond to aggression, not to appeals to the conscience they don't have.
A final point about the ethics of negative campaigning deserves attention because it is rarely discussed.  The _failure_ to "go negative" against an incumbent whose behavior in office is deeply immortal or destructive to America's moral authority is itself an ethical failure.  If voters take their cues from political leaders, and their leaders are publicly silent on issues about which they are privately outraged, they are misleading in their silence.

(337)  A central psychological principle in shaping voters' networks is never to let the other side create emotional associations without countering them.  That means, among other things, never letting an attack linger without responding to it.  Or as Carville and Begala have gracefully put it, "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth."

(353-354)  One of the most potent ways to respond to attacks on one's character, patriotism, or faith is to use the same idiom, redefined, to turn the accuser into the accused.  Doing so creates a counternarrative that activates the same emotional systems but links them to alternative networks.  And even more important is to challenge the frame pre-emptively - to inoculate - rather than to remain silent and hope for the best, or to argue about the smoke after the other side has already burned down your house.

(364)  More than 250 experiments in over a dozen countries have demonstrated that reminding people of their mortality - activating networks about the fear of death - tends to tilt our brains to the right.  Whether the reminder comes in the form of a questionnaire asking people whether they would prefer cremation or burial, gory pictures, interviews that "incidentally" take place in front of funeral parlors, or even subliminal exposure to the words _dead_ or _death_, people across the world will cling more tenaciously to the worldviews they hold dear. Except for people with strong progressive worldviews, who sometimes become more polarized toward their own ideology in response to reminders of their mortality, this generally means clinging to more "traditional" cultural values.  People who are reminded of their mortality will become less tolerant toward people who differ from them in religion, more nationalistic, and harsher in the way they punish those who transgress traditional moral values.

A team of scientists led by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszynski discovered the impart of what they call "mortality salience" on people's attitudes and behavior over twenty years ago, long before the current reign of terror.  They called their approach, presciently, "terror  management theory," and it has turned out to have tremendous political implications that could not have been foreseen at the time - and that have, remarkably, failed to draw the attention of Democratic strategists.

(368)  ...terror manipulations don't work if you warn people how they work.  Multiple experiments have shown that you can block the effect of mortality salience on thought and behavior if you simply inoculate people by telling them about how it works.  [Sheldon Solomon, one of the architects of terror management theory]

(381-382)  In matters of morality, as in every other realm of life, what drives people are their emotions, and the moral emotions of the left tend to be very different from those of the far right.  University of Virginia psychologist John Haidt has distinguished several kinds of moral emotions.  What he and other psychologist call "self-conscious" emotions - shame, embarrassment, and especially guilt - often lead us to do the right thing even when we might want to do otherwise.  "Other-suffering" emotions, such as compassion and empathy, lead us to feel for others and to try to help them.  Along with what Haidt calls "other-praising" emotions, such as admiration for those who behave in ways we consider morally courageous or worthy of our respect or exaltation, these are the primary emotions that define the morality of the left.

But there is another class of moral emotions that can be a source of good or evil, what Haidt calls "other-condemning" emotions:  anger, indignation, contempt, disgust, and loathing.  These are the emotions to which those on the far right are most vulnerable.  They are also emotions to which those in the center and center-right (e.g., evangelical Christians) are vulnerable if no one unmasks the trappings of sanctity in which they are all too frequently draped and offers an alternative moral vision grounded in compassion.

(401-402)  ...once in a while someone says something so remarkable that's it's worth noting, without any comment at all.  Such a situation took place on March 1st in Annapolis, Maryland, where a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was taking place... Jamie Raskin, professor of law at American University, testified as to why the amendment should not be passed.  At the end of his testimony... Senator Nancy Jacobs stood up and shouted:  "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman.  What do you have to say about that?"  To which Mr. Raskin replied:  "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution.  You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

(408-409)  When the pollster John Zogby tracked down the meaning of the exit poll data from the 2004 presidential election showing that fully one-fifth of voters responded that "moral values" had determined their votes, he discovered something surprising:  far and away, the moral values people considered most important were the Iraq War, greed, and poverty.

(413)  Perhaps the most powerful principle of behavior change ever discovered by clinical psychologists is _exposure_, which means exposing people to the thing they're afraid of until it is no longer threatening.  Often, the most effective strategy is _graduated exposure_, in which a psychologist gradually exposes a person with a phobia (e.g., of spiders) to increasingly threatening experiences (e.g., starting with a imagining a spider until the person can do so comfortably, and working up to picking one up.)

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