Monday, May 03, 2004

Choose one from Column A, two from Column B

A series of experiments by neuroscientists from UCLA aim to determine the way Democratic and Republican brains differ in how they interpret political images, said the International Herald Tribune for April 21.

The tests involve having a subject lie inside an MRI machine and watch various political commercials while the researchers observe which parts of their brain "light up" (become active) and when. The subjects are first shown pictures of Bush, Kerry, and Nader - to which, perhaps not surprisingly, they all react emotionally (or, at least, areas of the brain related to emotional responses become active). But after they're shown a Bush campaign commercial, the reaction changes: They still react emotionally to their own preferred candidate but their reaction to the opposing candidate becomes more rational.
"It seems as if they're really identifying with their own candidate, whereas when they see the opponent, they're using their rational apparatus to argue against him," [lead researcher Marco] Iacoboni said.
Any interpretations are speculative; since the experiment is only half over - that is, they want to test twice as many subjects as the 11 they have so far - even the researchers themselves don't claim to have proved anything.

Not yet, anyway.

However, they already claim to have noticed a difference in those who identify themselves as Democrats as opposed to those who call themselves Republicans: When shown either the Bush commercial that used images from 9/11 or the famous, once-shown "Daisy" commercial used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964, Democrats showed greater activity in an area of the brain that responds to threats and danger. (For those who have never seen it, "Daisy" shows an image of a little girl in a field counting the petals she pulls off a daisy; her voices fades into a sober countdown, leading to an atomic explosion.) They speculate that this supports the notion that Democrats are in general more reluctant to use force than Republicans.

So why isn't this a geek post, just some interesting science, in this case better understanding how the brain works? Because this is how the article ends:
While new to political advertising, brain imaging has been used to analyze other kinds of responses to commercials, both by "neuromarketers" selling services to corporations and by academic researchers like Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who has studied brain responses to soft-drink advertising. He said that research like Iacoboni's could help expose manipulative techniques during political campaigns.

"This research can show how a candidate is unfairly targeting the weaknesses and foibles of voters," Montague said, "and that can be empowering."
Empowering, my ass. This is, rather, another example of science being perverted (or at least setting itself up to be perverted) into the service of existing power. Does Montague really believe that the use of this research would be to "expose manipulative techniques" rather than to improve them? That the result will be less deceit instead of more, more substance instead of less?

Perhaps, in fact, he does believe that, since a story in the October 26, 2003 New York Times calls him "purely academic in focus, studying the consumer mind out of intellectual curiosity, with no corporate support." However, if he does, he is incredibly naive. That same article immediately adds:
Increasingly, though, there are others - like several of the researchers at the Mind of the Market Laboratory at Harvard Business School - who work as full-fledged "neuromarketers," conducting brain research with the help of corporate financing and sharing their results with their sponsors.
That is, their avowed purpose is to find "New! Improved!" ways to influence, direct, and control consumer behavior for the benefit of corporate profit.

Now, I actually agree with the folks at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (source of the link to the Times article) when they say that "the hype around is neuromarketing is much larger than it's actual power to steer consumer behavior." Indeed, as I understand it, there's not much evidence any advertising drives consumer behavior beyond the limited realm of brand choice within a category. (That is, advertising can't make you drink soda but it can affect whether soda-drinkers buy Coke or Pepsi.) My concern is not with the present but with the future, with the potential for more effective manipulation arising out of continued advances in neuroscience and refinements of technique and its application to areas beyond product choice to other kinds of choice.

Whether you can be effectively unconsciously manipulated to prefer Coke to Pepsi isn't really important; whether you can be so manipulated to prefer Candidate A to Candidate B, is.

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