Swing state neurons?

In a tight election, attention immediately turns to swing voters. Poll analysts swarm them with a barrage of questions to predict which candidate may garner more of their crucial votes. In anticipation of the 2008 election, analysts went one step further and looked not only at swing voters’ survey responses but also their neural responses. In the 2007 New York Times op-ed “This is your brain on politics,” a mix of scientists and market researchers explained what this entailed. They showed 20 swing voters photos and video excerpts of the presidential candidates from each party while inside an MRI scanner, then had them answer questionnaires about their attitudes toward each candidate in order to compare the brain and behavioral data.

From these comparisons, the article drew a number of conclusions, including that Mitt Romney evokes anxiety as evidenced by participants’ amygdala activation and that John Edwards garners disgust as indicated by insula activity. The boldness of these claims drew a flood of criticism within the neuroscience community. Perhaps most impactful was a letter to the editor written and signed by 17 top researchers in the field that condemned the study’s use of reverse inference—or the claim that a particular cognitive process is occurring based on observed neural activation patterns—along with the lack of peer review. For a study to be published in an academic journal, it must endure the scrutiny of researchers knowledgeable about the area and often goes through several rounds of revision before it is accepted. This is not the case for publication in a newspaper, which makes an author’s conclusions more questionable although by no means necessarily wrong.

As the 2012 election nears, poll analysts are no doubt turning to neuroscientists to help them understand what votes are ‘really’ thinking. While neuroimaging can have a valuable place in political psychology, it is important to be cognizant of whether the particular methods being used are appropriate before accepting researchers’ claims at face value.