Obama builds lead inside voters' brains!

The state of the universe.
Feb. 5 2008 4:52 PM

Obama Builds Lead Inside Voters' Brains!

Neuropundits weigh in on Super Tuesday.

CNN is pushing the latest neuropunditry data on the 2008 presidential primaries. In a video segment that first aired this morning, reporter Randi Kaye tries to avert a replay of the New Hampshire polling fiasco by getting at what's going on inside the minds of California's undecided voters. "Voters may say they prefer one candidate," she explains, "but the brain actually knows better. It's not a lie, but an inarticulated truth."

Kaye teams up with a neuromarketing firm called Lucid Systems, which sells its services on the grounds that we all lie about our preferences—to pollsters, to friends, even to ourselves. They claim to suss out the "unspoken truth" in our minds, using a variety of not-quite-cutting-edge technologies. (CNN.com is pushing the story on its homepage under the tabloid headline, "Machine reads voters' lying minds.")

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


So, were the voters lying? According to the segment, CNN and Lucid tested eight undecided voters, among whom at least two claimed to favor Obama and Clinton equally. But digging into the brains of these would-be wafflers revealed that both were secretly "negative" for Clinton. (One of them "isn't even aware of [his bias] until we ask him to dig deeper," says Kaye.)

Of course, it might not have taken a brain scientist to figure that out. It turns out the researchers weren't really looking at brains at all for three-quarters of the test group. Instead, they measured just two things: skin-conductance response—with the fingertip electrodes that have been used in conventional (and unreliable) lie detectors for at least 100 years—and movements in the corrugator supercilii muscle that furrows the brow when you're displeased. Taken together, these signals give a rough sense of how intensely a voter dislikes a particular candidate. It's a bit harder to tell if a voter secretly liked a candidate. (The other two subjects also had their brain activity measured via electroencephalography, which hinted at how strongly they associated each candidate with words like winner and leader.)

Since these sorts of studies require some kind of subjective analysis at the end, it's fair to wonder at the political leanings of Lucid Systems. The company's chief research officer, Baruch College professor Jennifer Mangels, has a history of donations to the Democratic National Committee. And company founder Fernando Miranda—formerly of Johns Hopkins—shows signs of Huckabee-style creationism. At one point during the CNN segment, he explains the adaptive value of quick, unconscious decision-making by imagining our prehistoric forebears: "You don't get to think about how fast you're going to run away from a dinosaur—you really have to run!" (More evidence: Doesn't Lucid's marketing imagery remind you of those anti-abortion activists  who cover their mouths with red duct tape?

This is far from the worst neuropunditry to hit the mainstream media this election season. Other marketing firms, like FKF Applied Research, have been much more freewheeling in their interpretation of ambiguous brain-imaging data. Lucid Systems deserves some credit for sticking to venerable research methods with well-known strengths and limitations. But that doesn't let CNN off the hook: The network shamelessly inflated this rather old-fashioned study with the image of a mind-reading computer that can predict tonight's outcome at the polls. "Call it a neurological lie detector test," says Kaye at the end of the segment. "It may prove to be better than polling at determining what a voter does in the voting booth."

Corrugator supercilii: Activate!



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