Think You Vote Based on the Issues?

Think Again. Research Shows Our Votes Are Swayed by Our Feelings

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 22, 2008 -- As election 2008 kicks into high gear, candidates vying for votes would be wise to tap into our emotions and not just drone on about the issues and their policies.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and other presidential hopefuls will be better off tugging on our heart strings, said Drew Westen, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

When candidates assume that voters make their decisions based solely on the issues, they lose, Westen said. "Feelings toward the parties and their principles account for 80 percent of votes," he said at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City.

To prove the theory, Westen and colleagues conducted a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on the brains of staunch Democrats and staunch Republicans. The MRIs showed that the emotional areas of participants' brains lit up when they read articles suggesting their favored politician was dishonest.

What's more, there was a decrease in activity in the parts of the brain that deal with reasoning when they read the information. Even more striking, Westen said, was that all participants appeared to find ways of ignoring this negative information, holding on to their previous beliefs. When their emotion eventually overcame the reasoning, it stimulated the brain's reward system -- similar to what happens to drug addicts when they get their fix.

This is why speaking with emotion matters, he said. "It's about making what is not conscious become conscious by activating networks in the brain." Networks are basically bundles of thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas that have become connected over time and can be used to evoke emotions -- and votes.

Westen, a self-proclaimed card-carrying Democrat, says the GOP is much better at activating our emotions, and thus garnering votes, than Democrats. "Republicans say 'this is what I stand for' and Democrats hide their values in their policies," he said. The Republicans shine by using emotionally evocative phrases such as 'the war on terror,' which gets at the voters feelings of safety and security.


"When the other side is running on a relentless war against terror, if you are going to run on prescription drugs, those drugs better be [the anti-anxiety drug] Xanax or you are going to lose," he said.

There are other examples of how the Democrats fail to reach voters. Take universal health care, he said. Democrats talk about the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). "You couldn't develop a worse abstraction for something that is this important," he said. "Don't take acronyms out in the public [because] it's very difficult to establish a reaction to an acronym. Instead, say something like 'I believe every family deserves a family doctor,' which will surely resonate more."

The environment is another example. "If you want to find a more bland, abstract word to describe the world we live in, you couldn't do it," he said. "It is very difficult to establish emotional associations to such abstract terms. Instead, say 'we must act now to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.'

"You don't have to dumb things down, you simply have to get [voters] to feel what you feel," Westen says.

Politicians need to tell voters who they are and what they stand for, he said. "A laundry list of issues is not a story."

Westen has spoken with most of the Democratic candidates for president but is not consulting for any one campaign.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 22, 2008



Annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, New York, Jan. 16-20, 2008.

Drew Westen, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology, Emory University, Atlanta; author, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

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