The Political Brain

The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation


By Drew Westen

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The Political Brain is a groundbreaking investigation into the role of emotion in determining the political life of the nation. For two decades Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, has explored a theory of the mind that differs substantially from the more “dispassionate” notions held by most cognitive psychologists, political scientists, and economists — and Democratic campaign strategists. The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works. When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on “the issues,” they lose. That’s why only one Democrat has been re-elected to the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt — and only one Republican has failed in that quest.

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role. Westen shows, through a whistle-stop journey through the evolution of the passionate brain and a bravura tour through fifty years of American presidential and national elections, why campaigns succeed and fail. The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

Westen turns conventional political analyses on their head, suggesting that the question for Democratic politics isn’t so much about moving to the right or the left but about moving the electorate. He shows how it can be done through examples of what candidates have said — or could have said — in debates, speeches, and ads. Westen’s discoveries could utterly transform electoral arithmetic, showing how a different view of the mind and brain leads to a different way of talking with voters about issues that have tied the tongues of Democrats for much of forty years — such as abortion, guns, taxes, and race. You can’t change the structure of the brain. But you can change the way you appeal to it. And here’s how


Praise for The Political Brain
"This is the most interesting, informative book on politics I've read in many years.... [Westen's] suggestions for what candidates should say—and should have said—should be read and studied by anyone who wants to understand modern American politics. This book is a handbook for how to talk about what really matters to you, written in just the way Westen says we should talk to voters—with vivid language, evocative imagery, and a sense of humor. It's also a good primer on why attacks can't go unanswered and how best to respond to them. If you want to know why candidates win or lose elections and what voters look for in a leader—whether you're an interested voter or a candidate for public office—you have to read this book."
"This book could easily be titled The Next Step. Democrats have caught up with Republicans in being able to target voters and we're making rapid strides in rebuilding our party so we can talk to voters in fifty states. This book outlines a more intractable problem: How to actually talk to voters once we organize. Drew Westen is a must read and must hear for any Democrat who wants to win in Mississippi, Colorado, or rural Ohio. In 2006 we did win in those areas. In 2008 we will win the presidency if our candidate reads and acts on this book."
—HOWARD DEAN, chairman, Democratic Party
"The Political Brain is the most illuminating book on contemporary American politics I've ever read. By explaining how voters actually process information, Drew Westen lays bare the connection between politicaltechnique, political conviction, and the Democrats' habit of bungling winnable elections. If every leading Democratic politician reads this book, we could have a decent America back."
—ROBERT KUTTNER, cofounder and editor-in-chief, The American Prospect
"In recent years, a small number of experts on language and rhetoric have been touted as the Democrats' savior. None of these panned out.... Many people are therefore skittish about anyone being heralded as the next source of advice. But Westen's analyses and suggestions speak precisely to Democrats' greatest tactical failures of the last quarter-century, and they do so without descending to the level of 'Mission Accomplished' banners and the 'death tax.' It will be fascinating to see how The Political Brain is received among the Democratic political professionals, who are for the most part insular and arrogant and have an explanation for everything. But Westen's explanations sound better than the ones that have long been circulating in Washington."
—MICHAEL TOMASKY, The New York Review of Books
"Why do most Americans agree with Democrats and vote for Republicans ? Because Republicans know more about the human brain than their opponents do. In a delightful and insightful book, Westen uses the latest research in psychology and cognitive neuroscience to show how Republicans win by appealing to the heart while Democrats lose by appealing to the mind. This fascinating book will appeal to hearts and minds on both sides of the aisle. The Political Brain is scary and scary smart, serious and seriously funny. Machiavelli, move over, there's a new kid in town."
—DANIEL GILBERT, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness
"In the last several months, [Westen] has gone from a politically inclined nobody to a hot ticket, presenting his ideas to presidential campaigns, political strategists, pollsters, consultants, and donors. In his work, they hope to find a grand unified theory of How Democrats Can Stop Blowing It."
Los Angeles Times
"The Political Brain . . . has catapulted the Emory University professor from the ivory tower to the political epicenter. And Democrats throughout the capital are listening to his prescriptions and adapting them for practical use."
USA Today
"[By a] psychologist with impressive research and clinical credentials. . . . No other book has so comprehensively linked psychological science with election-day choices.... He offers psychologically appealing and principled approaches that Democrats can take regarding divisive issues such as Iraq, abortion, gays, gun control, race relations, terrorism, and taxes.... Recommended for academic and public libraries."
—Library Journal
"A savvy, scary, partisan, provocative, take-no-prisoners-political primer, with cautionary tales drawn from the emotionally-challenged Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry campaigns, each of which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.... His analysis of how and why political rhetoric stimulates voters' 'networks of association, bundles of thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas' will be instructive, if also infuriating, to political junkies, no matter what their partisan affiliation."
—The Baltimore Sun
"Exceptionally clear.... Democrats finally have a prophet who can lead them to the promised land of winning national elections, and his prescription is simple: Fight back, dadgummit."
—Sacramento Bee
"A recent book by Drew Westen, now being avidly read in Westminster, argues persuasively that voters, even the most analytical of them, think about politics with the touchy-feely part of their brains, rather than the rational."
The Sunday Times (UK)
"Someone had to say it.... And Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist and political strategist from Emory University, has stepped up to the plate in The Political Brain to give a scathing, sobering diagnosis of what ails a political party whose beliefs are in line with the majority of Americans on almost every issue and yet fails to translate that alignment into sustainable electoral success. Armed with numerous studies on how the brain operates in that crucial interplay between emotion and reason that energizes voters, Westen has succeeded in penning a manifesto on behalf of bringing the passionate back into the narrative—and actions—of the Democratic Party."
"Westen's book joins the ever-growing list of postmortems over why the Democrats lost their past two White House bids. But the author is no casual armchair pundit. He comes to the fray armed as a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University who has used magnetic resonance imaging to understand how voters respond to partisan politics."


This book is aimed at readers interested in how the mind works, how the brain works, and what this means for why candidates win and lose elections. Its intended audience includes readers interested in politics, psychology, leadership, neuroscience, marketing, and law.
This book is likely to be of particular interest to the 50 million Democratic voters who can't figure out why their party has lost so many elections despite polls showing that the average voter agrees with Democratic positions on most policy issues, from protection of the earth to fairness to middle-class taxpayers who want nothing more than a better life for their children.
The central thesis of the book is that the vision of mind that has captured the imagination of philosophers, cognitive scientists, economists, and political scientists since the eighteenth century—a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions—bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose.
If this book doesn't read like the typical book on politics or political strategy, it's because it asks a question seldom asked by political pundits or political scientists: How would candidates for public office run their campaigns if they started with an understanding of how the minds and brains of voters actually work?
The questions we ask invariably reflect our own background. I am a scientist who studies emotion and personality; the lead investigator in a team of neuroscientists who have been studying how the brain processes political and legal information; and a periodic contributor to public discourse on psychology and politics in print, television, and radio . For the last two decades, I have been advancing a view of the mind that differs substantially from the more dispassionate visions of the mind held by most cognitive psychologists, political scientists, and economists (which suggest that although we may cut a few cognitive corners here and there, we are largely rational actors, who make important decisions by weighing the evidence and calculating costs and benefits). 1
I am also a practicing clinician, who has trained psychologists and psychiatrists for more than twenty years in how to understand the nuances of meaning in what people say, do, and feel. In working with patients, if you miss those nuances—if you misread what they may be trying to communicate, if you misjudge their character, if you don't notice when their emotions, gestures, or tone of voice don't fit what they're saying, if you don't catch the fleeting sadness or anger that lingers on their face for only a few milliseconds as they mention someone or something you might otherwise not know was important—you lose your patients. Or worse still, you don't.
In politics, if you misread these things, you lose elections.
The Partisan Brain
In the final, heated months of the 2004 presidential election, my colleagues Stephan Hamann, Clint Kilts, and I put together a research team to study what happens in the brain as political partisans—who constitute about 80 percent of the electorate—wrestle with new political information. We studied the brains of fifteen committed Democrats and fifteen confirmed Republicans.2 (We would have studied voters without commitments to one party or candidate as well, but by the fall of 2004, finding people with intact brains who were not already leaning one way or the other would have been a daunting task.)
We scanned their brains for activity as they read a series of slides. Our goal was to present them with reasoning tasks that would lead a "dispassionate" observer to an obvious logical conclusion, but would be in direct conflict with the conclusion a partisan Democrat or Republican would want to reach about his party's candidate. In other words, our goal was to create a head-to-head conflict between the constraints on belief imposed by reason and evidence (data showing that the candidate had done something inconsistent, pandering, dishonest, slimy, or simply bad) and the constraints imposed by emotion (strong feelings toward the parties and the candidates). What we hoped to learn was how, in real time, the brain negotiates conflicts between data and desire.
Although we were in relatively uncharted territory, we came in with some strong hunches, which scientists like to dignify with the label hypotheses. Guiding all these hypotheses was our expectation that when data clashed with desire, the political brain would somehow "reason" its way to the desired conclusions.
We had four hypotheses.
First, we expected that threatening information—even if partisans didn't acknowledge it as threatening—would activate neural circuits shown in prior studies to be associated with negative emotional states.
Second, we expected to see activations in a part of the brain heavily involved in regulating emotions. Our hunch was that what passes for reasoning in politics is more often rationalization, motivated by efforts to reason to emotionally satisfying conclusions.
Third, we expected to see a brain in conflict—conflict between what a reasonable person could believe and what a partisan would want to believe. Thus, we predicted activations in a region known to be involved in monitoring and resolving conflicts.
Finally, we expected subjects to "reason with their gut" rather than to analyze the merits of the case. Thus, we didn't expect to see strong activations in parts of the brain that had "turned on" in every prior study of reasoning, even though we were presenting partisans with a reasoning task (to decide whether two statements about their candidate were consistent or inconsistent).
We presented partisans with six sets of statements involving clear inconsistencies by Kerry, six by Bush, and six by politically neutral male figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, William Styron). Although many of the statements and quotations were edited or fictionalized, we maximized their believability by embedding them in actual quotes or descriptions of actual events.
As partisans lay in the scanner, they viewed a series of slides.3 The first slide in each set presented an initial statement, typically a quote from the candidate. The second slide provided a contradictory statement, also frequently taken from the candidate, which suggested a clear inconsistency that would be threatening to a partisan. Here is one of the contradictions we used to put the squeeze on the brains of partisan supporters of John Kerry:
Initial statement (Slide 1): During the first Gulf War, John Kerry wrote to a constituent: "Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition . . . I share your concerns. I voted in favor of a resolution that would have insisted that economic sanctions be given more time to work."
Contradiction (Slide 2): Seven days later, Kerry wrote to a different constituent, "Thank you for expressing your support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. From the outset of the invasion, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush's response to the crisis."
Without some kind of mitigating information, it would be difficult to argue that these two statements are not mutually contradictory (although, as we'll see, the human brain is a remarkable organ).
After partisans read the first two slides, which presented them with a clear contradiction, the third slide simply gave them some time to stew on it, asking them to consider whether the two statements were inconsistent. The fourth slide then asked them to rate the extent to which they agreed that the candidate's words and deeds were contradictory, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).
Bush supporters faced similar dilemmas, such as the following:
Initial statement (Slide 1): "Having been here and seeing the care that these troops get is comforting for me and Laura. We are, should, and must provide the best care for anybody who is willing to put their life in harm's way for our country."—President Bush, 2003, visiting a Veterans Administration Hospital.
Contradiction (Slide 2): Mr. Bush's visit came on the same day that the Administration announced its immediate cutoff of VA hospital access to approximately 164,000 veterans.
For the politically neutral figures, the inconsistency was also real, but it was not threatening to partisans of one candidate or the other. Thus, it provided a useful comparison.
Our committed Democrats and Republicans were scanned in the run-up to one of the most polarized presidential races in recent history. So how did they respond?
They didn't disappoint us. They had no trouble seeing the contradictions for the opposition candidate, rating his inconsistencies close to a 4 on the four-point rating scale. For their own candidate, however, ratings averaged closer to 2, indicating minimal contradiction. Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush. And as predicted, Democrats and Republicans showed no differences in their response to contradictions for the politically neutral figures.
Science is an untidy business, and you don't expect all your hypotheses to pan out. But in this case, we went four for four. The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to "reason" to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints as they do it.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, unconscious, or some combination of the two we don't know.
The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate's words and deeds.
Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly—as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.
But the political brain also did something we didn't predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their "fix," giving new meaning to the term political junkie.4
So what are the implications of this study?
One is pragmatic. If you're running a campaign, you shouldn't worry about offending the 30 percent of the population whose brains can't process information from your side of the aisle unless their lives depend on it (e.g., after an attack on the U.S. mainland). If you're a Republican, your focus should be on moving the 10 to 20 percent of the population with changeable minds to the right and bringing your unbending 30 percent to the polls. Republican strategists in fact have had no trouble branding Northern Californians and Northeasterners "latte-drinking liberals." They know their own party's kitchen doesn't have room for a latte maker, and that scalding the other side can bring a little froth to the mouths of their own voters.
The implications for Democrats should be equally clear: Stop worrying about offending those who consider Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell moral leaders because their minds won't bend to the left. Indeed, the failure of the Democratic Party for much of the last decade to define itself in opposition to anyone or anything has created a Maxwell House Majority convinced that the only coffee the Democrats are capable of brewing is lukewarm and tepid—tested by pollsters to insure that it's not too hot or too strong—and served up with stale rhetoric. And they're right.
But if we take a step back, and place this study in the context of a growing body of research in psychology and political science, there's another message in these findings: The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision. The partisans in our study were, on average, bright, educated, and politically aware. They were not the voters who think "Alito" is an Italian pastry, the kind of voters who have raised so many alarm calls among political scientists and pundits.
And yet they thought with their guts.
Rational readers may take solace in noting that in American politics today, partisans are roughly equally split, with a little over a third of voters identifying themselves as Republican and roughly the same percent identifying themselves as Democrats. So they cancel each other out, leaving those in the center to swing elections based on more rational considerations.
But as it turns out, they think with their guts, too.
There is, however, a bright side to this story. Most of the time, emotions provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior—including voting behavior—although the needle sometimes takes a couple of years to move. What led voters to demand a change of course on Iraq in November 2006 was not that they had new information. They had new emotions. The compass shifted from nationalistic pride and hope to anger, concern, and a rising crest of resignation. "Stay the course" made little sense in light of this emotional shift.
We can't change the structure of the political brain, which reflects millions of years of evolution. But we can change the way we appeal to it.
And that's what this book is about.

Part One

chapter one
Politics has always been as much about identity and community . . . as about the economy. Self-interest defined in purely economic terms is an idea that reduces the Democratic Party to little more than the human-resources department of American politics, endlessly fussing over pensions and health-care plans and whether or not you got your flu shot, rather than a party concerned with the fundamental stuff of life: who we are, how we organize our society, and what it means to be American at this particular moment in history.
—GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA, The American Prospect, 20041
We have grown accustomed to thinking about politics in terms of red states and blue states. But it's easy to forget that the states that really determine elections are voters' states of mind.
Although brain scanning studies sometimes create the impression that thoughts or feelings come and go when one part of the brain "turns on" or another "turns off," the reality is that our brains are vast networks of neurons (nerve cells) that work together to generate our experience of the world. Of particular importance are networks of associations , bundles of thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas that have become connected over time.
If you start with networks, you think very differently about politics. Just how important networks are in understanding why candidates win and lose can be seen by contrasting two political advertisements, the first from Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency in 1992, and the second from John Kerry's in 2004. Both men were running against an increasingly unpopular incumbent named Bush. Both ads were, for each man, his chance to introduce himself to the general electorate following the Democratic primary campaign and to tell the story he wanted to tell about himself to the American people. And both were a microcosm of the entire campaign.
The two ads seem very similar in their "surface structure." But looks can be deceiving. A clinical "dissection" of these ads makes clear that they couldn't have been more different in the networks they activated and the emotions they elicited.
Clinton's ad was deceptively simple, narrated exclusively (and with exquisitely moving emotion) by the young Arkansas governor. In the background was music evocative of small-town America, along with images and video clips that underscored the message. (Here and throughout the book, I describe relevant visual images or sounds in brackets.)
BILL CLINTON: I was born in a little town called Hope, Arkansas [image of a small-town train station, with the name HOPE on a small white sign against a brick background], three months after my father died. I remember that old two-story house where I lived with my grandparents. They had very limited incomes. It was in 1963 [video clip of John F. Kennedy, looking presidential, coming up to a podium] that I went to Washington and met President Kennedy at the Boy's Nation Program [video of the young Clinton and the youthful President Kennedy shaking hands]. And I remember [living room video of a now-adult Clinton, starry eyed and nostalgic thinking about the encounter with a man who was obviously his hero] just, uh, thinking what an incredible country this was, that somebody like me, you know, who had no money or anything, would be given the opportunity to meet the President [photo of their hands clasped, slowly and gradually expanding to show the connection between the two men]. That's when I decided I could really do public service because I cared so much about people. I worked my way through law school with part time jobs—anything I could find. After I graduated, I really didn't care about making a lot of money [photos of poor and working-class houses in Arkansas]. I just wanted to go home and see if I could make a difference [photo of the young governor-elect raising his right hand to take the oath of office as governor of Arkansas]. We've worked hard in education and health care [video clips of Clinton with children in a classroom, being hugged by a woman in her seventies or eighties, and talking with workers] to create jobs, and we've made real progress [photo of the governor hard at work late at night in his office]. Now it's exhilarating to me to think that as president I could help to change all our people's lives for the better [video of Clinton obviously at ease with a smiling young girl in his arms] and bring hope back to the American dream.2


On Sale
May 6, 2008
Page Count
496 pages

Drew Westen

About the Author

Drew Westen received his B.A. at Harvard, an M.A. in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex (England), and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan, where he subsequently taught for six years. For several years he was Chief Psychologist at Cambridge Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. He is a commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and lives in Atlanta.

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