Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Return of Drew Westen: The Political Brain

I saw a recent article claiming that Drew Westen had been hired as a consultant by some arm of the Democratic reelection machine. That seems like a positive step. Westen wrote the book The Political Brain: The role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. It came out in 2007 during the endless primary battle between Clinton and Obama. Given that he set out to explain why Republicans almost always beat Democrats in presidential campaigns his book was very relevant. The first part of the book (Mind, Brain and Emotion in Politics) is a mixture of analyses of campaign ads and strategies, a description of how our brains function, and an explanation of why we act the way we do. The remainder of the book (A Blueprint for Emotionally Compelling Campaigns) consisted of Westen’s advice on how Democrats should present their views on various issues. At the time I thought the first part of the book was the most interesting. It seemed a bit presumptuous of the author to be drifting away from his technical field into writing campaign speeches. At the time Obama was my man and he seemed to have learned what he needed from Westen (Part 1) and was doing just fine for himself. Nevertheless, Westen did create a fascinating and important document.

I just finished reading Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? That was a rather good read, in general, but a few of Sandel’s comments made my blood pressure rise a notch or two. What got me started were comments by Sandel that science cannot address the issue of free will, and, more outrageously, he suggested that Supreme Court Justices were able to render decisions devoid of any bias or emotional attachment to the issues. After suppressing a gagging reflex, I ran to find my copy of Westen’s book.

Westen describes our current brain as being constructed through evolution of a sequence of additions to an existing structure. Each addition presumably gave "us" some evolutionary advantage. The earliest life forms were driven by purely emotional responses that were designed to protect the organism from harm and enhance its survivability. When the capability for rational thought evolved, it was developed on top of this emotional base and it was designed to work in concert with the emotional parts of the brain. One needs both of these functions working properly to produce what we would recognize as normal human behavior. The tricky part is that the emotions are somewhat autonomous in that they can be activated subconsciously. This is what you would expect from a mechanism that is designed to protect us from harm. It is the interplay of the emotional and rational brain functions in our decision processes that makes the book so interesting and justifies the author giving advice to a bunch of naive politicians.

On the issue of free will and the ability to make unbiased decisions, consider this statement by the author.

"In politics, as in everyday life, two sets of often competing constraints shape our judgments: cognitive constraints, imposed by the information we have available, and emotional constraints, imposed by the feelings associated with one conclusion or another. Most of the time, this battle for the control of our minds occurs outside of awareness, leaving us as blind spectators to our own psychodramas, prisoners of the images cast on the wall of our skulls."Westen quotes several studies designed to evaluate the degree to which established emotional responses are able to trump rational thought. The conclusion:
"The capacity for rational judgment evolved to augment, not replace, evolutionarily older motivational systems. The emotional systems of simpler organisms are ’decision making’ systems that initiate approach, avoidance, fight, or flight. The neural circuits activated during complex human decision making do not function independently of these more primitive systems. Freud analogized reason to a hapless rider on a horse, who does his best to channel and control the large beast—pulling it this way and tugging it that way—but ultimately, the power resides in the horse, not the rider."The author provides an even more succinct description of how citizens and politicians have behaved in the past.
"When emotion roared, reason buckled at the knees."An individual who is concerned about politics and current affairs will generally have developed emotional connections, and, in Westen’s terminology, will possess a "partisan brain."
"....allegiance to party—a largely emotional allegiance—remains the central determinant of voting behavior today. The same is true in most stable Western democracies, where political affiliation tends to be handed from generation to generation like a family heirloom."What does this mean quantitatively?
"....the political and legal decision makers precisely mirrored the general electorate, whose judgments could be predicted with over 80 percent accuracy from their prior emotional prejudices and predispositions, irrespective of the facts."This figure of 80 percent means that in any election cycle 80 percent of the people will vote in a way that cannot be modified by logical or emotional arguments. The good news is that 20 percent is actually a large number given that most presidential elections are decided by only a few percent.

Westen tells campaign managers and politicians that their primary goals should be to:
"...define the party and its principles in a way that is emotionally compelling and tells a coherent story of what its members believe in, and to define the other party and its values in ways that undermine its capacity to resonate emotionally with voters......maximize positive and minimize negative feelings towards its candidate, and to encourage the opposite set of feelings toward the opponent...."Westen provides many examples of what has and what has not worked in the past, and he provides numerous suggestions on how, in the future, to address issues near and dear to the progressive soul.

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