Messages for the Amygdala: The Conventional Wisdom of Political Practitioners Has Now Been Proven by Neuroscientists: Campaigns Only Work If They Can Trigger Emotions

By Hofinger, Christoph | Politics Magazine, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Messages for the Amygdala: The Conventional Wisdom of Political Practitioners Has Now Been Proven by Neuroscientists: Campaigns Only Work If They Can Trigger Emotions


Hofinger, Christoph, Politics Magazine


Successful campaigners knew it all along. Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky always had three topics prepared to convince Austrian voters: "One for the pocketbook, one for the head and one for the heart." Those political instincts are now proven right by the enormous progress made in recent years in the field of neuroscience, which shows the part of the brain that we mistakenly call the "heart" ultimately plays a part in all human decision-making.

Contemporary research localizes the place where emotional decision-making takes place. It's not in the chest but in brain areas like the limbic system. Just how important these emotional centers of the brain are for our decisions is revealed in a dramatic way in cases where those systems do not work properly (as a result of an injury or a disease). The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documents the case of a patient with a normal IQ who was not able to make even simple decisions such as setting an appointment. The process of rational deliberation never came to an end, because at no point did he ever feel, "This is what I want!" Hence, it can be assumed that also decisions to support a political party or to buy a certain product cannot be made without the ancient emotional parts of our brain.

In his book "The Political Brain," Drew Westen mentions another piece of evidence supporting the relevance of emotions for campaign professionals. The subjects in a psychological experiment are quite willing to sacrifice their own benefit for the common good. As soon as a small monetary reward is set, though, many of the participants stop behaving in an altruistic manner. The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the nucleus accumbens, the reward center in our brains, which probably developed in primeval times to facilitate activities such as picking berries. (Today it is stimulated during gambling or when anticipating new messages in our e-mail inbox.) The reward center reacts strongly to financial incentives but seems to submerge the activities of other areas of the brain that let us experience satisfaction when doing something for the community.

Therefore, using an additional incentive in a fundraising campaign such as offering bonus miles for each Euro donated will harm, rather than help the good cause.

Various other experiments have yielded sufficient proof that communications efforts that try to influence the target groups' behavior must fail if they do not address our emotional (and often unconscious) areas of the brain. This should once and for all close the debate about the legitimacy of campaigns that appeal to our emotions, a debate that has been particularly popular in political parties seeing themselves following the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment (from the Greens in Europe to the Democrats in the United States). In "Don't Think of an Elephant!" George Lakoff held up a mirror to U.S. Democrats arguing that, with the exception of Republican voters, Democrats failed to speak to the voters' unconscious scripts. …

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