Neuropundits Gone Wild!
Befuddling brain science on the opinion pages of the New York Times.
An op-ed from Sunday's New York Times, "This Is Your Brain on Politics," proposes to answer what must be the most vexing question of modern American politics: What's going on inside the head of a swing voter? The authors—a team of neuroscientists and political consultants—ran 20 of these undecided volunteers through a brain scanner and showed them pictures and video of the major candidates from both parties. The results, laid out both in print and an online slide show, purport to give us some insight as to how the upcoming primaries will play out: "Mitt Romney may have some potential," the researchers conclude, and Hillary Clinton seems to have an edge at winning over her opponents.
Don't believe a word of it. To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous. Their imaging study has not been published in any science journal, nor has it been vetted by experts in the field; it can't rightly be called an "experiment," since the authors weren't testing any particular hypothesis; and the arbitrary conclusions they draw from the data aren't even consistent with their own previous research.
But before we evaluate those conclusions, let's consider the source. The study comes straight from FKF Applied Research, a D.C.-based "neuromarketing" firm that conducts brain-based focus groups for Fortune 500 companies. For the past two years, FKF has finagled widespread coverage of its business by conducting spurious fMRI analyses of Super Bowl commercials and then announcing the winners and losers. (See, for example, "This Is Your Brain on a Super Bowl Ad.") Business Week, Time, Reuters, and MSNBC have all boosted the company's bottom line with free publicity, but no publication has been nearly as generous as the Times. To date, the paper has published eight articles about the company (including one on the front page) since it was founded three years ago. And now, as of Sunday, the Times has gone so far as to run two op-ed columns by FKF's Josh Freedman with exactly the same title. In neither case did the newspaper disclose his connection to the firm.
As the authors of what is essentially an extended FKF advertorial, Freedman and his colleagues have a strong incentive to tout their services and sex up the findings. Even so, many of their conclusions seem either haphazard or comically vague. Take their first point: When test subjects were shown the name of a political party—either the words Republican, Democrat, or Independent—they responded with neural activity in the amygdala, the insula, and the striatum. According to the authors, these regions of the brain correspond to feelings of anxiety, disgust, and pleasure. Really, all three? From that meaningless mishmash of emotions, they meekly conclude that "voters sense both peril and promise in party brands."
Their assessment of Hillary Clinton might be more illuminating. Subjects who claimed to dislike the senator before the experiment began showed activation of the anterior cingulate cortex—an area thought to be associated with internal conflict—when confronted with her picture. "It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton," say the authors. "This phenomenon, not found for any other candidate, suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be able to gather support from some swing voters who oppose her." Is this a hint that she's not too polarizing to get elected? Now that would be something worth knowing.
But their interpretation of the Hillary data starts to look a little fishy if you take into account a similar round of FKF brain scans from the last presidential election. In 2004, the same researchers put 20 highly partisan voters into an MRI machine and showed them pictures of George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader. The result: Voters showed heightened activity in the conflict areas—including the anterior cingulate cortex—when they viewed the candidate they hated, as opposed to one they loved. In other words, when a hard-core Democrat looks at a picture of the dreaded George Bush, you get the same brain activity as when a swing voter looks at Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, the Hillary results don't seem so promising.
(It's worth noting that FKF co-founder Tom Freedman—that's Josh's brother—worked on the 1996 presidential campaign and served as a senior adviser in the Clinton White House. Could his relationship with the Clintons have swayed the results in favor of Hillary? It's at least worth a disclosure.)