The neuroscience behind elections

Guest post by Bob Bailly 

Over a year ago I wrote a blog entitled Election emotion, where I looked at an article from Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail. In it, she examined how decisions are made during elections. I’ve always been intrigued by electioneering, and must admit in my career to have managed five different communications campaigns for winning mayoral, Liberal, and Conservative candidates in Alberta. As a “hired gun,” I’ve always looked at the challenge the same as I did for all my clients; it’s all about how customers — in this case the voting public — make decisions.

In my post, I noted how Wente plucked the latest ideas arising from neuroscience to support her argument that our decisions are largely controlled by the most primitive part of our brains. She opined that while “elections are won by people who inspire confidence and hope … it’s a lot easier to whip up fear and loathing. So forget the contest of ideas.” Her piece was actually about the inability of Liberal Michael Ignatieff to ignite the passions of anyone other than hardcore Liberal supporters, proposing that his only hope would be to give a speech that says, “People, I may not be charismatic, but I’m sincere. You’ve got to vote for me to save the country!” Stephen Harper went on to secure a majority, and the Liberals became an endangered species several months later.

However I was reminded again in April by the election of Alberta’s first female premier that the volatility of our decision making process is based upon the simple premise Wente puts forward — that “the neuroscientific evidence is overwhelming that we form our opinions first, then find the facts to back them up.” The real understanding, in my mind, is that these decisions often, if not always, have an emotional backing based upon our fears.

For non-Albertans, the rise from nowhere of Premier-elect Alison Redford can be readily explained by neuroscience as it relates to decision making. And her ascent was eerily similar to a fascinating moment in the early US Democratic primaries in 2008 when Barack Obama was seeking his first term as president and competing against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Obama had won the opening contest in Idaho, and in the days leading up to the New Hampshire contest, the once seemingly invincible Clinton was predicted to lose once again. In fact, a Rasmussen Report telephone survey conducted the weekend prior to the New Hampshire primary put Obama at 39 percent, and Clinton at 27 percent. But during what was to become a widely televised interview on the eve of the election, something very simple happened. On camera Clinton was clearly seen to become emotionally overwhelmed during her answer to an innocuous question, and a tear briefly welled up in her eye.

The next day she won the contest 39 percent to 36 percent over Obama. How could the research have been so off-base? And why?

Among other insights, it turned out women voters either switched their vote or decided to vote when they normally might not have. Against logic and despite the argument that leaders should display strength, Clinton had made an emotional connection that influenced their decision. Traditional research could not predict this outcome, but neuroscientists would postulate that women electors were given real proof that Clinton was human after all, and as any woman in need she deserved their support. A neuromarketer would point out that this is just another example of a decision being made by their reptilian brains.

A similar phenomenum worked for Redford. The emergence of the Wildrose Party and its leader Danielle Smith late last year threatened the newly-minted leader of the PC party — they appeared to be on the brink of electoral disaster. PCs in Alberta have ruled for decades, so the perception of a bright new party was putting the PCs under extreme pressure and polls predicted a good chance they might even lose the election. Wikipedia records the election thus: “Although the Wildrose Party led opinion polls for much of the campaign, on election night the Progressive Conservatives defied expectations to win 61 seats — a net loss of only five — en route to their 12th consecutive majority government.”

What happened?

In my mind there was likely one person and one comment that ensured the defeat of Wildrose. It happened when candidate Pastor Alan Hunsberger blogged that all homosexuals, if they did not repent from their sinful ways, would surely burn in the “lakes of fire.”

Mishandled badly by the party, Wildrose never recovered. His comments likely set off an old brain response in many more liberal Albertans based upon a fear that Wildrose candidates likely harboured other intolerant agendas. It was enough to alter predicted votes, and the research was outmaneuvered and their polls were wrong by a mile. Neuromarketing principles might have predicted this.

One head. Three brains. One decision maker.

I’ve written extensively about this scientific observation:

  • The new brain thinks. It processes rational data and shares its deductions with the other two brains.
  • The mid brain feels. It processes emotions and gut feelings and also shares its findings with the other two brains.
  • The old brain decides. It takes input from the other two brains but controls the decision making process.

To put this very simply, the new and mid brains are really only looking for evidence that the old brain has made a good decision.

Implications for researchers

Rather than polling, and while it would be fun to use MRI equipment to get into our prospects’ heads, neuromarketing principles offer other insights that pollsters and companies alike should consider. Because the old brain is totally self-centered, what is primarily important is diagnosing the old brain’s concerns (not the stated intentions of the new brain).

To find out your customers’ real pain, research efforts are best directed to finding out answers to these four questions:

  • What is the source of your customers’ pain?
  • What is the intensity of their pain?
  • What are the worst consequences for not eliminating their pain?
  • Is the pain acknowledged?

Source of the pain: Identifying the source of the pain is like taking pulse at the right vein of a patient. It is the best way to assess the nature of the pain, therefore a first step toward making sure your product or service is designed to bring effective relief!

Intensity of the pain: Learn to diagnose whether the pain addressed by your solution is of high or low intensity early in your selling process. Or better, learn to detect and focus on the high intensity pains!

Worst consequences: Knowing the source of the pain helps qualify the tension driving the intent to buy. Knowing the intensity helps measure the meaning of the tension. And identifying the consequences validates whether or not your customer has powerful and compelling reasons to cure the pain.

Pain acknowledgement: It is a critical part of the convincing process to make the customer acknowledge his/her pain. Think about the last time you went to see a doctor. Most likely, after answering questions related to your ailment, you were asked to confirm that the diagnostic made by the doctor was a correct assessment of the source of the pain.

Research that does not take these factors into account does so at its own peril.

Just ask Obama or Clinton, Smith, or perhaps even Mitt Romney in a couple of weeks — logic doesn’t seem to have a chance when our reptilian brains make a late decision.

Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner and an associate at Francis Moran and Associates. 

Francis Moran and Associates is an associated team of seasoned practitioners of a number of different marketing disciplines, all of whom share a passion for technology and a proven record of driving revenue growth in markets across the globe. We work with B2B technology companies of all sizes and at every life stage and can engage as individuals or as a full team to provide quick counsel, a complete marketing strategy or the ongoing hands-on input of a virtual chief marketing officer. 

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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