Library Corner: The Political Brain

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

Next time you are at an airport and you look at the business book section you will find a vast selection of books promising to explain the science behind marketing and behavioural science. And online the selection is even more daunting. Unfortunately, after you have read a couple, many start to appear rather similar, recounting the same stories, experiments, and case studies. But every now and then you will come across a fantastic book that changes your perspective or opens your eyes to something new. Each month we will review one of these books, either a new release or something from that past, but outside of the mainstream behavioural science or marketing literature. First up: The Political Brain by Drew Westen.

After the last decade, you might be thinking that the last thing we need is more politics, and to a certain extent you are probably right. But at its heart this is a book not about politics but persuasion. Politics is a zero-sum game - you need to convince half of the electorate to vote for you on one day, every four years. Manage this and you are safely in power for the next four years; fail, and you are trapped in opposition. Considering the high stakes involved you would expect that political advisors would be master of persuasion, yet somehow this is not the case, or at least this is not the case for the Democratic party. The author, a self-described frustrated democrat, wants to understand why the democrat party consistently loses elections when polling reveals that the vast majority of the US population prefer their politics. 

As a clinical psychologist, he thinks the answer is simple. If elections were won in the debating chamber where policies were objectively scrutinised, then democrats would consistently win. But that is not what happens. Instead, voters decide who to vote for based on wishes, fears, and values, and if there is discrepancy between what we rationally think about policies and how much we like the politician, then our heart wins. This should not come as a shock to any marketer, but seems to be a revolutionary idea to the world of pollical campaigning – at least on the left. 

Despite tackling such a seemingly basic idea, the book stands out for its execution; clearly articulating how theory turns into practice. Far too many books provide an overview of the psychology of decision making, exploring how people use mental associations to create lasting memories, but you are left thinking ‘how does this help me?’. While Westen does not ignore theory, he meticulously illustrates how this should be incorporated into campaigns. He dissects adverts and speeches produced by candidates from both political parties and suggests what they should have done instead, or maybe what he wished they had done.

In essence the book is a tour de force of message framing. How do you take a dry issue and craft a story that people care about? For example, how do you convince republicans to support environmental legislation - something typically vehemently opposed by the right? The answer? Reframe it so that it become relevant to them. Imagine the advert: the camera pans around a beautiful lake in the wilderness, before focusing on a man teaching a young boy how to hold a shotgun. A voiceover reminisces, “My dad taught me to hunt here. I remember the first time I shot a duck here. The look of pride on my dad’s face. For the first time, I felt like a real man. My Dad’s no longer with us, but I wanted to teach my son to shoot here. I wanted him to have the same experiences that I did. But since the factories have been pouring their toxic waste into the lake, it’s killed all the fish and ducks. Their greed has meant there is nothing left for us to fish or hunt. They are destroying our American way of life.”

“In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.”

But Westen’s suggestions are not restricted to ads; he also pays close attention to the words candidates use in debates and speeches. Seemingly trivial changes trigger radically different emotions, changing our interpretation of the message, and shifting the narrative in the public consciousness. When Ronald Reagan attempted to persuade voters to accept tax cuts, he avoided talking about taxes. Instead, he referred to taxation as ‘confiscation’, an evocative word that triggers an emotional cascade - a series of related thoughts and feelings that elicits premediated associations. In this case, this was the idea that the government is taking (or stealing) some of your money. Likewise, when he wanted to convince congress to support rebels in Nicaragua who were attempting to overthrow the government, he refrained from refereeing to them as a militia, rebel, or insurgent, instead opting for ‘freedom fighters’. Freedom is a core ‘American’ value and no true American can argue that people do not deserve freedom.

Successful marketing works by controlling these networks of associations, not just the explicit references made in speeches and adverts, but the visual imagery used. Candidates want to be relatedly seen against backdrops of happy families, American flags and picket fences. Consciously we may not realise it, but it is reinforcing the view that they are as American as apple pie. At the same time, they will aim to pair their rival with negative associations. 

The book may have been published ten years ago, and the political discourse has moved on. Trump has been and (sort of) gone, attitudes towards gun rights have become more entrenched, and Roe vs Wade has been overturned. And yet this book feels even more relevant. While written for Democrats, it feels like you are reading the ‘playbook’ used by both Trump and the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. It clearly articulates the dangers of not controlling the public narrative and highlights what happens if you are too afraid to broach a subject.

The book is not without its faults; a small number of his campaign ideals feel like they are too radical and would alienate voters. But what marketer can claim never to have had an idea that, in hindsight, was a little too crazy and would probably backfire! 

The Political Brain was originally published by Public Affairs in 2008 and is available to buy for £10.99

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