That worm thing crawling along the bottom of the screen is so passé. The new way of determining what swinging voters think is to put them in a scanner and do some functional magnetic resonance imaging.

A group of academics have done just that at the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Registered voters who stated that they were open to choosing a candidate from either party in next November’s presidential election — 10 men and 10 women — had their brain activity studied while looking at pictures and videos of candidates in between answering two questionnaires. Findings of the survey were reported this week in The New York Times. The questionnaire responses were then compared with the brain data.

Among the findings were:

  1. Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands. When we showed subjects the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent”, they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety. The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust — the amygdala and the insula — were especially active when men viewed “Republican.” But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected. There was only one exception: men showed little response, positive or negative, when viewing “independent”.


  2. Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed. Voters who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire appeared not entirely comfortable with their assessment. When viewing images of her, these voters exhibited significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one. It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.  

Subjects who rated her more favorably, in contrast, showed very little activity in this brain area when they viewed pictures of her.

This phenomenon, not found for any other candidate, suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be able to gather support from some swing voters who oppose her if she manages to soften their negative responses to her. But she may be vulnerable to attacks that seek to reinforce those negative associations.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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