Tuesday, March 01, 2005

When Consultants use MRIs

Apparently, neuroscience has found a biological link to religious belief, has vindicated utilitarianism, and might be able to perfect political (and other marketing) appeals. The Los Angeles Times is the latest to report on studies of brain activity in response to political advertising [see also here and here]. Preliminary results suggest that there are differences between the ways Democrats and Republicans react to images in campaign spots. This scientific endeavor may be very fruitful in extending our understanding of voting behavior. The downside is that political consultants will someday be able to use the same techniques to manipulate the electorate.

At first blush, the thought of MRIs replacing focus groups seems ominous indeed. But how troubled should we be by this prospect? Is a map of brain activity significantly different than responses on a survey or in a focus group? I'm not sure. My gut reaction is that, yes, there is a difference. But the only argument I can come up with is that appeals based on neuroresponses enable consultants to influence people at an almost pre-rational level. When ads are created based on focus group discussions, there will be slippage between the appeal and the response. That's because there's a real possibility that people aren't explaining their reactions completely, as even they don't fully understand them. But if, in using MRIs, consultants were to know more about voters' responses than the voters do, there seems to be an advantage for the consultant that borders on manipulation.

The assumption here is that the brain activity being monitored in this process is based more in emotion than in reason. But that may not be the case at all. As an earlier article by John Tierney in the New York Times described the studies...

One of the most striking results so far is the way that subjects react to candidates after seeing a campaign commercial. At the start of the session, when they look at photographs of Bush, Kerry and Ralph Nader, subjects from both parties tend to show emotional reactions to all the candidates, indicated in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain above the nose associated with reflexive reactions.

But then, after the Bush campaign commercial is shown, the subjects respond in a partisan fashion when the photographs are shown again. They still respond emotionally to the candidate of their party, but when they see the other party's candidate, there is more activity in the rational part of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

There's still a lot to be learned here. But I don't think it's at all clear that a future of MRI-tested ads would be one of mind control.


At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Stephen Maynard Caliendo said...

Once again, psychology is out in front of political science on this. There is such a rich area of exploration with the decreasing costs of MRI technology and the increasing willingness of medical centers to work with social scientists on these issues.

As Stephen wisely notes, there is always a validity gap with regard to measuing attitudes through surveys. All we can measure is expressed attitudes (opinions), which are filtered through the subject's perceptions of social acceptability, pride, and misestimation (under- or over-estimation) of real knowledge. Imaging will allow researchers to get a better handle on many of the political phenomena that are only partially (sometimes weakly) explained through current social science research methods.

The point of Stephen's post, though, is more applied than academic. If researchers can use this technology to understand, explore and explain, then candidates and consultants can use it to persuade, manipulate and move to action. Even though that does seem troublesome, I have to wonder, too, whether it's really much worse than what is done now -- practices that were also frowned upon when survey methodology matured to the point where it became useful for applied political purposes.

I am excited about the opportunity to one day be involved with MRI experiments to help explain racial messages in political communication. I will certainly wonder then what I often wonder now when I present findings from my work with my co-author: are we simply giving ideas to those who would use our findings for evil?


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