Help Protect & Advance
Freedom of Thought!
Subscribe to E-Mail News
from the CCLE.
has been watching the "neuromarketing" field develop over the past several
years. An article in today's New York Times adds fuel to our concerns about
neuromarketing being used for political purposes. The race seems to be on
between using sophisticated brain imaging to guard against manipulative
political advertising, versus using it to produce such advertising.
As the CCLE continues to refine our perspective on neuromarketing and
cognitive liberty, we're interested in hearing what you think after you read
this article. Please take our
one-question survey on our Neuromarketing issues page.
Using M.R.I.’s to See
Politics on the Brain
By JOHN TIERNEY, New York Times, April 20, 2004
LOS ANGELES, April 16 - The political consultants discreetly observed from
the next room as their subject watched the campaign commercials. But in this
political experiment, unlike the usual ones, the subject did not respond by
turning a dial or discussing his reactions with a focus group.
He lay inside an M.R.I. machine, watching commercials playing on the inside
of his goggles as neuroscientists from the University of California, Los
Angeles, measured the blood flow in his brain. Instead of asking the
subject, John Graham, a Democratic voter, what he thought of the use of
Sept. 11 images in a Bush campaign commercial, the researchers noted which
parts of Mr. Graham's brain were active as he watched. The active parts,
they also noted, were different from the parts that had lighted up in
earlier tests with Republican brains.
The researchers do not claim to have figured out either party's brain yet,
since they have not finished this experiment. But they have already noticed
intriguing patterns in how Democrats and Republicans look at candidates.
They have tested 11 subjects and say they need to test twice that many to
confirm the trend.
"These new tools could help us someday be less reliant on clichés and
unproven adages," said Tom Freedman, a strategist in the 1996 Clinton
campaign, later a White House aide and now a sponsor of the research.
"They'll help put a bit more science in political science."
In the experiment with Mr. Graham, researchers exposed him to photographs of
the presidential candidates, commercials for President Bush and John Kerry,
and other video images, including the "Daisy" commercial from 1964. In that
advertisement, promoting Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater, images
of a girl picking petals from a daisy were replaced by images of a nuclear
When Mr. Graham emerged from his hourlong session in the magnetic resonance
imaging machine, the researchers had no questions for him, but he did field
an old-fashioned one from a reporter wondering what had most impressed him.
He cited two images: the Sept. 11 segment of the Bush commercial and the
nuclear explosion that the "Daisy" advertisement suggested would be a
consequence of electing Mr. Goldwater.
"I was shocked at how much political capital Bush is trying to make out of
9/11," Mr. Graham said. "But I found it kind of interesting that Johnson was
using the same kind of technique against a Republican."
The researchers had already zeroed in on those images and their effect among
Democrats on the part of the brain that responds to threats and danger, the
amygdala. Mr. Graham, like other Democrats tested so far, reacted to the
Sept. 11 images with noticeably more activity in the amygdala than did the
Republicans, said the lead researcher, Marco Iacoboni, an associate
professor at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Institute who directs a
laboratory at the
Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center there.
"The first interpretation that occurred to me," Professor Iacoboni said, "is
that the Democrats see the 9/11 issue as a good way for Bush to get
re-elected, and they experience that as a threat."
But then the researchers noted that same spike in amygdala activity when the
Democrats watched the nuclear explosion in the "Daisy" spot, which promoted
Mr. Freedman suggested another interpretation based on his political
experience: the theory that Democrats are generally more alarmed by any use
of force than Republicans are. For now, Professor Iacoboni leans toward this
second interpretation, though he is withholding judgment until the
experiment is over.
Mr. Freedman and William Knapp, a strategist with both Clinton presidential
campaigns and the Gore campaign in 2000, turned to this technology after
consulting with Mr. Freedman's brother, Dr. Joshua Freedman, an assistant
professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A., who was less than impressed by the
methodology of political consultants.
"It seemed so last century," Professor Freedman said. "Consultants were
quoting Freud as if it was cutting edge. It was all about interpretation
instead of using new technology to measure what's actually happening in the
Professor Freedman and the two political consultants formed a company, FKF
Research, and provided a grant for an experiment led by Professor Iacoboni,
a neuroscientist known for his work mapping parts of the brain activated
when people empathize with others. He, Professor Freedman and a U.C.L.A.
colleague, Jonas Kaplan, plan to publish the results in a scientific
"In the past decade we've built up all this knowledge of how the brain
works," Professor Iacoboni said, "and now it's exciting that we can finally
start applying it to social issues."
One of the most striking results so far is the way subjects react to
candidates after seeing a campaign commercial. At the start of the session,
when they look at photographs of Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry and Ralph Nader,
subjects from both parties tend to show emotional reactions to all the
candidates, indicated in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the
brain associated with reflexive reactions.
But then, after the Bush campaign commercial is shown, the subjects respond
in a partisan fashion when the photographs are shown again. They still
respond emotionally to the candidate of their party, but when they see the
other party's candidate, there is more activity in the rational part of the
brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. "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," Professor
The neuroscientists warned against drawing conclusions until the experiment
was over. They said the results would mainly point the way for future
research, and other neuroscientists echoed their caution.
"Brain imaging offers a fantastic opportunity to study how people respond to
political information," said Jonathan D. Cohen, director of the Center for
the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior at Princeton. "But the results of such
studies are often complex, and it is important to resist the temptation to
read into them what we may wish to believe, before our conclusions have been
Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford,
said there were so many kinds of images and other stimuli in a political
commercial that it was notoriously difficult for any kind of research to
pinpoint effects. But Professor Iyengar said the M.R.I. technology offered a
"Academic research in political science into the effects of campaign
advertising is 90 percent bogus, relying as it does on self-reported
exposure to a multitude of disparate messages and images," he said. "Any
efforts to isolate viewers' actual responses to ads - be they neurological,
verbal or behavioral - is a step in the right direction." Though new to
political advertising, brain imaging has been used to analyze other kinds of
reactions to commercials, both by "neuromarketers" selling services to
corporations and by academic researchers like Read Montague, who has studied
brain responses to soft-drink advertising. He said research like Professor
Iacoboni's could help expose manipulative techniques during political
"This research can show how a candidate is unfairly targeting the weaknesses
and foibles of voters, and that can be empowering," said Professor Montague,
director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Baylor College of
Of course, political consultants could also use this technology to create
more manipulative commercials, though Mr. Freedman and Mr. Knapp say they do
not hope for partisan advantage from their research.
"We just want to start exploring this new frontier," Mr. Knapp said. "We
know we can't rely just on what people say in polls and focus groups. They
tell us over and over that they hate negative advertising, but we know they
respond to it. It would be nice to figure out what's actually going on
inside their heads."