The Brain and the Presidential Election

If I say, Democrat or Republican, a candidate doesn’t have to be competent or knowledgeable to be elected the President of the Unites States, I probably piss off the majority of people in America. I will worry about pissing off other parties when they start to matter. Now that I’ve riled up the rest of America, I say “Calm down!” I am trying to understand what the fuck happened in the 2016 Election like every one else. I just want to apply brain science to figure out what it takes to win a presidential election in America. Before I dive deep into the topic, here’s the bottom line: the human brain doesn’t give a shit about policy or positions unless the latter are the Kama Sutra kind. All it cares about is attraction and emotion.

I am not trying to understand how a pussy-grabbing rich Manhattanite Yankee can win votes in the Deep South, or a lying life-long public servant Mid-Western transplant can win votes in New York. Dyed-in-the-wool democrats would even vote for a left-of-commie candidate. Hard-core Republicans would vote for a candidate supported by right-wing fringe groups.

The argument I am about to put forward applies mainly to the brains of swing voters. I mean people who are not Democratic or Republican loyalists. For a Presidential candidate to be successful, he has to win these people over. In other words, the candidate has to have a broader appeal beyond the base, Democratic or Republican. He can do it with charm and great speeches like Barack Obama and Ronald Regan did, or with words that strike fear or anger as Nixon and Trump did. So, Obama and Regan won the brains over with attraction and Nixon and Trump did it with emotion. Inability to do either is why Hillary Clinton lost the election. This is evident when you consider the fact that many people who previously voted for Obama voted for Trump.

You can apply this logic to every Presidential election going back to John F. Kennedy’s in 1960, which is when the first televised debate occurred. Nixon with a five o’clock shadow was no match for handsome and charming JFK. Since then, because we can see the candidates on TV, the reaction of our brains is more akin to what it does when we see people is real life. I closely followed every presidential election since 1992 on TV and I learnt about the past elections. I also heard speeches of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when they showed old footage on TV. The only election I didn’t have a handle on was that of Lyndon B. Johnson’s. I knew he was riding the emotional tsunami caused by JFK’s assassination. But did he have anything going for him otherwise? I tried to dig up stuff about personalities of LBJ and his opponent Barry Goldwater on the internet without much success. So, I decided to keep an open mind and determine for myself by hearing their speeches on YouTube. I was inspired by LBJ’s speeches. Goldwater’s speeches didn’t do it for me. He had good words but delivered them with a flat affect. No emotion and so no reaction in my brain.

The human brain is attracted to charm in all aspects of life. For example, research has shown that charming people sell more stuff than others. They also tend to be more persuasive in general. Studies on voting behavior of people in the United States and Europe indicate that candidates’ personality traits play a significant role in their chances of getting elected.

For our brains, part of the “attraction” in candidates is novelty. This may be one of the reasons why it is extremely hard for the same party to win the White House for a third term. In recent memory, it has happened only once: Republican George H. W. Bush’s one-term presidency after Ronald Regan’s two terms. Bush, while not terribly charming, was helped by Reagan’s popularity and his running mate Dan Quayle’s good looks. More importantly, his opponent Michael Dukakis was duller than Bush and hurt himself by pulling stupid stunts like posing on a military tank.

But the important thing to consider is that the same Bush, in spite of successful First Gulf War, lost to good-looking and charming Bill Clinton in 1992. Also, perhaps by then the voting brains were tired of the Republican Party. Another one-term president, Jimmy Carter also benefitted from novelty-seeking voters sick of Nixon era political scandals. So, down-home peanut farmer untainted by Washington dirt must have seemed like an interesting and desirable choice. How strong is the influence of novelty on our brains? All you have to remember is that the brain areas activated by novelty are pretty much the same as those activated by recreational drugs.

Neuroscience research has shown that humans make decisions based on emotion all the time, from shopping to mate choice. Voting for a presidential candidate falls somewhere in between in the spectrum of decisions our brains make. Emotion is often used as a short-cut to decision-making in place of deliberate thought. A part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) can override the effect of emotion. The PFC, however, does not have absolute mastery over other brain parts. It’s like a reasonable semi-strong Chief Executive Officer constantly in tug of war with the emotional employees to determine the direction for the company. The PFC can only win if its nerve cells have strong activity, which is difficult to achieve. The brains of most people go with the easy route, the gut feeling which is intimately connected to our nervous system controlled by emotion. So, a presidential candidate can create positive emotion in you like Obama did with the “Yes, we can” slogan and speech-making like a preacher and lead our brain in his favor in the polling booth. Or, a candidate can strike fear in our brains by painting a dark picture of the future without him and stoke your outrage (or perhaps even white rage) against certain groups of people like Trump did to goad you to vote for him.

So, if you are a Democrat or a Republican and have oodles of charm and can evoke emotion in citizens, or if you can elicit anger or fear in people, don’t worry about your thin resume or lack of national political experience. Throw your hat in the ring for the next presidential election. Remember one thing though. You have to be better at reaching voters’ brains through ‘attraction and emotion’ than your opponent.

One thought on “The Brain and the Presidential Election

  1. Pingback: Hate, Trump, and the Human Brain | anhegde

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