’08 Candidates Embrace Neuromarketing

Not to be outdone by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal explores the increasing usage of neuroscience tools for political ends in a recent article. They predict that companies like EmSense, a neuromarketing firm founded by MIT grads that uses EEG headsets to measure the brain activity of consumers and voters, will become increasingly prevalent in future election cycles. Though the ’08 presidential candidates have stayed away from newfangled gizmos, both John Edwards and Mitt Romney have hopped on the neuropunditry bandwagon to some degree. Romney turned to TargetPoint, a company that offers a new twist on traditional focus groups:

TargetPoint, the Virginia-based political and business consulting firm that worked for the Bush campaign in 2004 and is now working for Mr. Romney (his campaign paid the consultancy $345,000 last quarter, according to Federal Election Commission records) is seeking ways around the problem. Alex Lundry, the company’s research director, says traditional methods of polling voters are sometimes inaccurate. “People may say one thing in a focus group and do another thing in the voting booth,” he says. To get beyond this, Mr. Lundry says, the company developed an Internet survey that asks voters questions like which candidate they support. But rather than just tallying the results, the survey tests their subconscious attitudes by recording how quickly the respondents enter their answers — the theory being that faster responses indicate stronger feelings.

In order to refine his campaign strategies, John Edwards has called upon Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

In his studies, which have involved placing partisan voters in brain scanners, he found that when voters look at pictures of candidates or listen to their statements, the regions of the brain associated with emotion are more engaged than the regions governing thought. Instead of detailing a ten-point health-care plan, he says, politicians would be better off talking about health care in moral terms. An October Federal Election Commission filing shows Mr. Edwards’s campaign paid $1,951 to Westen Strategies for air fare. Mark Kornblau, Mr. Edwards’s traveling press secretary, said Mr. Westen had come to observe the candidate and give him some feedback. “He has gained notoriety and respect in the Democratic party with his book,” Mr. Kornblau says. “It was helpful to hear his ideas.” Mr. Westen declined to comment on the discussion.

Of course this news doesn’t do much to dispel the perception that John Edwards is all image and no substance.

It will be interesting to see how voters react to politicians who would rather pander to their emotions than persuade their judgments. The WSJ article argues that voters will accept the application of neuroscience tools to politics just as they have come to accept the use of focus groups. The real question is whether neuromarketing strategies will actually pay off in the primaries, and that only time can tell.

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