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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

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    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
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    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
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    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
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    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
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Thursday
Nov042010

Rigging the American elections... Neuromarketting and voting

How would you feel if you discovered that you had voted for someone, or something, that you don't agree with?  How is that possible?  

Well, it is not as far fetched as you may imagine.  This week I taught a class on the neurological processes of choice - how the brain makes decisions is quite predictable (and can even be 'gamed').  Please see this earlier post as an example.

The brain follows certain processes in making decions, and once those processes can be understood and engaged it is quite plausible that one could bypass some of the more subtle rational faculties of human decision making in order to get persons to act or react in a certain manner.  Fear is one common trigger to alter sensible behavior.  If you can get a person to become suspicious, or even fearful, of a certain group of persons, or a possible situation, you can get them to act in absolutely irrational ways.  Take for example the atrocities that are committed by entirely sensible people during wartime situations.

Of course not every aspect of engaging the neurological functions of the brain in decision making is unethical or bad.  There are some instances in which one would want to help persons to understand how their brains work in order to help them to make different choices - for example cognitive therapies for addictions help to change destructive behavior in some persons.

Then there is the simple reality that important messages deserve to be shared with effectiveness and clarity so that persons can make informed and reasonable decisions - the gist of the course that I taught earlier this week was to help the students at Media Village to understand how to frame their messages for the best possible outcome.

Well, all of this leads to this incredible story that my friend Aaron Marhsall sent through to me today.  It got me thinking whether it is ethical to employ subtle neuromarketting techniques in a democratic process?

What do you think?  Is this a form of coercion, rigging the elections?

There are a multitude of reasons the Republicans regained control of Congress in Tuesday’s elections--unemployment, voter discontent, tea party-ism. But the one influential factor you aren't likely to hear about is the use of political neuromarketing during the campaign.

During the 2008 presidential election, neuromarketers went public with research showing how political ads can drive emotional triggers in our unconscious brains. By reading the responses taken from people linked to fMRI or EEG machines, neuromarketers and their clients aim to optimize stimuli (political messages) and reaction in consumers’ brains and drive their (voting) decisions.

But with public trust in elected officials at an all-time low, politicians today won't talk about anything that even vaguely associates them with Orwellian "mind manipulation." But are they doing it? While most everyone agrees that neuromarketing was used in the 2010 midterm elections, none of the politicians we spoke to admitted to using the techniques in their own campaigns.

Darryl Howard, a consultant to two Republican winners on November 2, says he crafted neuromarketing-based messages for TV, direct mail and speeches for Senate, Congressional and Gubernatorial clients in 2010. “We measure everything including the storyline, level of the language, images, music. Using critical point analysis, we identify specifics that may drive voters away or attract them," he says. The techniques are non-invasive, and include measuring muscle, skin, and pupil response. "We prefer our methods over some EEG/fMRI methods because our approach is quicker and more importantly can be done in the script phase, saving production time and money and tells us the level of honesty of the ad.”

Fred Davis is a big believer in neuromarketing as well. He is a luminary in the GOP advertising world whose client list includes George W. Bush and John McCain. Davis, who advised Carly Fiorina's senate bid, says, "We've had a pretty decent success rate in campaigns, and it's all based on that principle of neuromarketing."

Oregon Republican State Senator Brian Boquist also admits to having employed political neuromarketing in his campaigns. “I don’t know how it works, all I know is that it works,” says the former Army commander who received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. Boquist was also careful to say the technology is part of a broader mix of campaign tactics, and has a way to go before it becomes effective.

Republicans appear to be using neuromarketing more than Democrats, if this midterm is any indication. They are appealing to the emotion of voters' “Red Brain” triggers. "No Democratic candidate I know of has used them [neuromarketing tactics], nor has any major Democratic organization appeared to express any interest in them,” says Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain and consultant to major U.S. national Democratic Party candidates.

Then again, 17 of 19 neuromarketing and political consultants contacted for this story stated they did not engage in the practice--including Neurofocus, which bills itself as the world leader in the emerging field and whose Chief Innovation Officer, Steven Genco, did political neuromarketing work previously at Lucid Systems.

"The real risk is that politicians will not want us to know that they are using influencing tools," says Patrick Renvoise, a neuromarketing consultant. "The one with the most knowledge wins and this probably explains why a lot of people are reluctant to talk about neuromarketing, especially with the word politician in the same sentence.”

Read the rest of this article here...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the ethics of neuromarketting in general, and its use in political (and even religious) messaging in particular?

Reader Comments (2)

We live in a world of manipulation. What was once conceived of as a "marketplace of ideas," these days is really a marketplace of manipulation. Rather than seeking to reach the intellect, marketers across the board seek to reach the emotions. The situation leads to plenty of unpleasant consequences, one of which is that it contributes to the belief that we *ought* to make decisions based on how we feel, rather than based on what's true.

Is it ethical to manipulate people this way? I don't think so. What the answer is, I don't know.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter@PrayerChristian

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I am of the mind that it is unethical to manipulate persons into making decisions they would otherwise not make. However, like you I am not entirely sure of the remedy. I do think that we can unmask such efforts and help persons to become aware of areas in which they are being manipulated.

Grace and peace in Christ,

Dion

October 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterDr Dion Forster

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