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King: Political campaigns play with our brains

POSTED: July 24, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Have you watched any political ads recently? Most of us have, even people like me who don’t have TV. They’re hard to escape, but when you ask someone if he or she is influenced by what they see, they say no.

Unfortunately, they are wrong. Those ads do influence people, especially the negative ads. If they didn’t, political parties and powerful organizations wouldn’t invest billions to get them before the public. People really can’t help being effected by messages that target their cultural or preconceived prejudices and are delivered over and over again.

Advertising has become a science, and political advertising uses every modern tool available. They do MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) to learn which part of the brain reacts to this or that verbal or visual message. It is rather frightening. No one wants to think they’re some kind of automaton that can be manipulated by others, but that is exactly what happens when people watch political campaign ads.

Here’s how it works: When an individual sees or hears a message — a speech, a debate, or a political ad — the message is processed by the brain. When the message runs counter to the individual’s preconceived bias, it sets up a negative response in the rational part of the brain. This is uncomfortable, so the brain switches the message to a different, more emotionally oriented part of the brain, one that produces a feel-good response.

(This is a very crude approximation of a complicated neurological process. Much of the research has been done at Emory University in Atlanta, and if you want to learn more, read Professor Drew Westen’s book “The Political Brain.”)

This happens to Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, religious fundamentals and atheists alike. The stronger the individual feels about an issue, the easier it is to divert the message from the rational part of the brain to the emotional part. People accept messages that support their bias, and reject or ignore those that don’t.

Politicians and their ad men know this and design messages to trigger the response they want. A lot of money changes hands. As much as 80 percent of it wasted, but when this was pointed out to one of these political ad men, he said, “Sure, we know that, but we don’t know which 80 percent.”

The net result is that the public is bombarded with a lot of emotionally charged messages that have very little to do with the welfare of the nation and do equally little to help the public elect good men and women to serve them. All it does is to churn the waters and make some people rich.

So what do we do? I’d like to see a serious public discussion of our nation’s values. I’d like to see it conduced by professional mediators and designed to identify national rather than political goals.

We as Americans share the same hopes and dreams for our families and for the nation. We all want the best possible health care system, the best possible educational system, the best banking system, the best national security system, etc. But few of us are in a position to know exactly how to go about this.

We have two major political parties that say, “We know how to do it,” but what they’re really saying is “Put us in power, then just trust us to deliver.”

There are very few checks and balances on the political debate. There is no penalty for lying, no limit on the money spent on political messaging, very little fact checking and few disinterested organizations to oversee the process.

Most Americans want to do the right thing, but very few of us know exactly what that is. Thus we are open to manipulation by well-financed political and ideological organizations that want our money and our vote. Nothing will change until we start taking some of this money out of the equation.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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