Feature

In 2006, Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, PhD, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Vol. 18, No. 11, pages 1,947-1,958) describing the neural correlates of political judgment and decision-making. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team examined the brain activity of 30 committed partisan men before the 2004 U.S. presidential election as they listened to positive or negative statements about their chosen candidates.

The researchers found that the brain areas responsible for reasoning did not show increased activity as participants drew their conclusions about the information. Instead, the brain areas controlling emotions lit up. Further, when participants had twisted the facts until they exonerated their candidate of choice, areas of the brain involved in reward-processing showed increased activity.

The study results suggest, Westen says, that the notion of "partisan reasoning" is an oxymoron, and that most of the time, partisans feel their way to beliefs rather than use their thinking caps.

Drawing on this and other research, Westen wrote "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" (Public Affairs, 2007) in which he argues that in politics, "when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins"-and that it isn't only partisans who think with their guts in politics.

With the book now in its third printing, Westen has been getting calls from congressmen, senators, presidential candidates and a range of organizations asking his advice on ways to better connect with voters. The Monitor recently asked Westen about his book and his time in the national spotlight.

Why did you write this book?

I was concerned with the direction our country is heading. I thought there was a lot of research in psychology and neuroscience that could inform leaders and candidates about how to speak about their values and positions in ways that would generate a more reasonable electoral process-reasonable in the way psychologists and neuroscientists now understand reason, as something not divorced from emotion.

What led to my first studies in political psychology was when Kathleen Wiley alleged she'd been groped by President Clinton. The weekend after, I remember hearing Pat Buchanan describe this as a women's issue and a civil rights issue, and I remember thinking, boy, when Pat Buchanan talks about women's issues and civil rights issues, it's time to bring in the shrinks. So, I started to do research on how it is that reason and emotion together influence people's judgments about things like whether or not they believed Kathleen Wiley's story, and later whether they ultimately thought the president's actions constituted an impeachable offense as defined by the Constitution.

Can you briefly describe the science that led to your conclusions?

We ultimately found that reason and knowledge contribute very little. From three studies during the Clinton impeachment era to the disputed vote count of 2000 to people's reactions to Abu Ghraib, we found we could predict somewhere between 80 percent and 85 percent of the time which way people would go on questions of presumed fact from emotions alone. Even when we gave them empirical data that pushed them one way or the other, that had no impact, or it only hardened their emotionally biased views. Then we followed that up with the brain study that begins the book.

How valid is neuroscience for evaluating people's reactions to politicians?

The process of interpreting brain scans is closer to the process of interpreting Rorschachs than many of us would like to admit. When you see amygdala activation, that could mean fear. Or it could mean simply arousal. There are surely circuits in the amygdala that are not fear circuits, and so the promise of fMRI for aiding in political campaigns is probably fairly substantial once we actually know the neural signatures of different emotional reactions. But at the present time, we don't have those signatures.

What other areas should psychologists study to gain insight into or improve the American political process?

I think the study of values is a pretty good one. Psychologists have been studying values off and on for decades, but we're still pretty far away from having an understanding from psychology that then filters out into the broader culture and political culture about the place of values in voting.

A good example right now would be health care, where that used to be an issue that was of major concern to people who cared about poor people not having health care. Well, now we're looking at problems for middle-class Americans who are suddenly looking at their health insurance evaporate, their rates go up, their choices go down, or they're not being able to move from one job to the next because they have pre-existing conditions. That's a good example of a case where people's self-interest converges with their values, and that's where you start to see some of these issues have greater emotional resonance with the public.

Another is simply to do more work applying to politics some of the basic science knowledge we have about emotion in psychology and about the interaction of cognition and emotion in political behavior. We have a lot of rational choice theories about how voters' minds work that don't map very well onto how voters' minds actually work. There are several political psychologists and political scientists who have done really important work on how people's feelings toward the candidates and parties influence their voting. I think we could use a good bit more, for example, on nonverbal behavior and on how people form opinions about candidates.

How has your life changed since this book was published?

I'm spending about half of my time on airplanes and in taxis and trying to figure out how to balance that with spending time with my kids. When I was writing the book, the editor of the American Prospect magazine got a copy of some of the chapters through a mutual friend, and he called me up the next day and said, "Put on your seatbelt, you're going for a ride." I laughed at the time thinking he was being hyperbolic, but he turned out to be less hyperbolic than I imagined.