The U.S. Collective Brain Selects a President

sylwesterThe U.S. presidential primaries that rumbled through Iowa and New Hampshire in low gear have now shifted into drive.

U.S. children may occasionally fanaticize about becoming President, but Paul Simon, a (now deceased) friend of mine since early adolescence, was always serious about it as a career goal. He began his long distinguished political career at 26 as a Representative in the Illinois Legislature and he ended it as a US Senator. But he also was a serious candidate during the 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign.

From childhood, Paul was one of the most genuinely moral, ethical, and inner-directed people I have ever known everything one would wish for in a politician. I never had the slightest interest in a political career, but Paul and other visionaries who master its complexities at the national level fascinate me. For example, the Senate Majority Leader’s task has been described as, like trying to keep a bunch of frogs in a moving wheelbarrow.

Democracy as a Political Concept
We’re individuals within a social species, and an increasing number of us live within a democratic society. Authoritarian governments dominated much of human history. Birth and battle determined who became leaders. The representative form of democracy initiated in the United States was thus a bold political experiment that has taken over 200 years to develop to its current still unfinished state.

To simplify the concept, democracies are characterized as much by disagreement as by agreement, so citizens have to learn how to disagree without being unduly disagreeable. Constitutions protect individual thought and expression, and a free press helps to insure political transparency. Majority vote settles an issue, but the minority can seek redress through the courts and subsequent regularly scheduled elections.

About a dozen additional democracies had emerged by the beginning of the 20th century, and today some 120 of the 200 countries in the world have some form of democratic government. The Internet and other communicative formats have transformed the world into a global village, which will certainly increase the pressure for increased democratic governance and the need for leadership appropriate to it. Further, the concept of transient leadership means that democracies must continually develop future leaders.

Leadership in a Democracy
Individuals in a social species depend on the capabilities and resources of others to provide needed goods and services, so effective persuasion is a key human property. An infant pleads for food and a politician pleads for votes.

Political candidates must be able to convince strangers to trust in and vote for them. We’re more apt to seek help from and give support to emotionally close family and friends. Those who seek the US presidency must thus successfully communicate competence and a genuine sense of cultural kinship with many millions of voters in a very culturally diverse society.

So how does one do that? Politicians in previous eras could fake cultural closeness by changing their message to fit the audience, but contemporary communication has eliminated that. As Comedy Central’s political critic Jon Stewart put it, “Don’t politicians know that we tape everything, and we never erase the tapes.”

Making Connections
Politicians who seek an advantage are thus increasingly using the growing research into the neurobiology of social behavior, leadership, and political persuasion. Non-technical syntheses of this research are similarly alerting voters to the rationale behind campaign strategies, and to deceptive practices. Four good recent examples: A newspaper op-ed synthesis, “This Is Your Brain on Politics”; a newspaper research report, “Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain”; a magazine article, “The Roots of Fear”; and an admitted polemical but widely read informative book, Drew Westen’s The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. In addition, my December 2006 Brain Connection column focused on Daniel Goleman’s related excellent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

How Our Brain Makes Decisions
A key finding from the research is that emotion plays a very important role in voter preferences perhaps more important than reason in many voters.

Three major brain systems process decision and action. Emotion alerts us to potentially important challenges that affect our basic values, fears, and hopes and so it often biases our decisions. Attention identifies and focuses on the key elements of the challenge. Reason uses memories of previous similar challenges and a repertoire of learned and improvised problem solving strategies to consciously determine how best to proceed.

If the challenge requires an immediate response, such as if I’m walking across the street and see a rapidly approaching car, subconscious brain systems automatically activate a rapid avoidance response that bypasses rational thought. I only need to know that something large is approaching very quickly. The car’s brand, age, and service record are irrelevant.

Conversely, if I want to purchase a car, a rational consideration of such details is better than an impetuous purchase. A salesman who knows the car is flawed but really wants to sell it may thus gloss over important rational negatives and tout peripheral emotional positives in order to get me to make an emotional decision a decision I may later regret.

Politicians may similarly deceive the unwary. Emotion is driven more by concepts than details, so it’s aroused by quickly perceived elements (such as size, color, shape, body language, and slogans). If a campaign can successfully insert such emotional triggers into its campaign rhetoric, it can create a visceral rather than rational consideration of the issues.

We tend to call a plumbing firm we trust when a leak occurs, and expect that the plumber they send will be competent. Most of us similarly align with a political party that parallels our basic views, and so even if we don’t initially know much about the candidates, we assume that they will competently represent our interests. The large number of presidential candidates in each Party’s 2008 primary poses a problem in that they all represent their Party’s core values, but align along a range on specific issues. So which candidate should a voter select?

Political issues tend to be far more complex than plumbing leaks, and so are rarely easily resolved. What the 2008 presidential candidates are thus trying to do is to create positive narratives of who they are and how they got to the point of applying for the job of U.S. President (as compared to proposing specific solutions to looming problems). We frequently depend on the narratives in books, films, plays, and TV shows to understand complex cultural issues.

We thus each seek a president who is capable of solving complex political challenges, but who also shares and can clearly articulate our personal values, fears, and hopes. The problem confronting each U.S. voter in the months ahead is to determine (1) if the level of experience a candidate brings provides the level of competence that will be needed, and (2) if the match between a candidates’ character and values is sufficiently close to mine so that my values, fears, and hopes will be adequately represented at the federal level.

The best candidates will present an honest personal narrative that resonates with a majority of the voters something that gives a clear perspective of their competence and character. A solid narrative will draw heavily on emotion, but it will also activate our brain’s rational thought and decision processes.

It will be a genuine tragedy if the primary and general election campaigns get mired down principally in emotion and deception, and if many voters don’t even recognize it — and loudly object.

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