Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lizard Brain vs. Pre-frontal Cortex in political ads

Nicholas Kristof had a great piece last week in the NY Times, called, "When Our Brains Short-Circuit." He argues:

Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

This has a number of important implications for policy. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard explains:

“What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history,” notes Daniel Gilbert. In contrast, he says, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today — such as climate change — sneak in under the brain’s radar.

Professor Gilbert argues that the threats that get our attention tend to have four features.

First, they are personalized and intentional. The human brain is highly evolved for social behavior (“that’s why we see faces in clouds, not clouds in faces,” says Mr. Gilbert), and, like gazelles, we are instinctively and obsessively on the lookout for predators and enemies.

Second, we respond to threats that we deem disgusting or immoral — characteristics more associated with sex, betrayal or spoiled food than with atmospheric chemistry.

Third, threats get our attention when they are imminent, while our brain circuitry is often cavalier about the future. That’s why we are so bad at saving for retirement. Economists tear their hair out at a puzzlingly irrational behavior called hyperbolic discounting: people’s preference for money now rather than much larger payments later.

Fourth, we’re far more sensitive to changes that are instantaneous than those that are gradual. We yawn at a slow melting of the glaciers, while if they shrank overnight we might take to the streets.

In short, we’re brilliantly programmed to act on the risks that confronted us in the Pleistocene Age. We’re less adept with 21st-century challenges.

The reason why I quote this article and Professor Gilbert's findings at length is because these four features (personalized and intentional, disgusting or immoral, imminent, and instantaneous) -- are EXACTLY the Republican playbook for creating fear-based political ads. Republicans don't make ads that appeal to our pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for rationality). Republicans make ads that appeal to our ancient fear-based lizard brains.

The #1 Republican ad in the 1984 election featured a wild bear.

The #1 Republican ad in the 1988 cycle featured a shadowy black rapist.

The #1 Republican ad in the 2004 election cycle featured a pack of hungry wolves.

And then in 2008 Republicans recycled the wolf ad and created an ad alleging that Obama wanted to teach sex ed to kindergartners (when in fact the bill in question was about protecting kids from sexual predators).

In every case, Republican media consultants are looking to invoke threats that are personalized and intentional, disgusting or immoral, imminent, and instantaneous. Their entire game plan consists of trying to trigger a conditioned fear-based emotional reaction to progressive candidates. They do it because they believe it works. But I also think there is a bigger tell here -- they create ONLY fear based ads because they know that their policies are not rational -- that one really can't justify wars without end, no health care for 48 million Americans, and tax cuts for billionaires. So they just gin up the fear machine year after year and hope that it works. Sometimes it does (1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004,) and sometimes it doesn't (1992, 1996, 2008). Interestingly, both Clinton and Obama knew how to appeal to voters emotionally (as well as rationally). Dukakis and Gore made strictly rational appeals -- and subsequently lost.

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