We’re Off To See The Lizard…

1 comment July 31st, 2007at 10:37pm Posted by Eli

Forget the Geico Cavemen, it’s the lizard brain that’s hot now.

Drew Westen in Sunday’s WaPo:

For much of the last 40 years, Democrats have ignored their guts and searched for the best facts and figures. But the most compelling fact is that during those 40 years, only one Democrat has been reelected to the presidency. Bill Clinton was also the only Democrat who intuitively understood that the best appeals seize people with something emotionally compelling, lay out the alternatives posed by the candidates and “close the argument” with inspiration or outrage.


The philosopher David Hume had it right: Reason is the slave to the passions, not the other way around. Recognizing the primacy of passion in everything we do has profound implications for politics. Reason is the middle manager in decision making, not the CEO. Policies are nothing but the frontmen for values. You listen to the middleman’s “pitch,” but you go straight to the top when it’s time to choose. You go, in other words, to your emotions — particularly your moral emotions — when you pull a lever in the voting booth.


Why is it almost always unwise to “refuse to dignify” a political attack? Because of the way our brains function. Our brains are nothing but vast networks of interconnected neurons, which join thoughts, images, sounds, memories and emotions. Why did Clinton have to disavow the label of “liberal” in last week’s debate, even though she explained the term’s noble derivation? Because conservatives understand how to make associations stick, and they have so thoroughly contaminated the neural networks in American minds that define what it means to be a liberal that even Jefferson couldn’t win an election today if he called himself one — which he did, liberally.

If the other side is trashing you and you say nothing or back down, you cede to your adversaries the neural networks that constitute public opinion….

And Benedict Carey in today’s NYT Science News:

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known. Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.


“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”


This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims – automatic survival systems.


And researchers do not yet know how or when, exactly, unconscious drives may suddenly become conscious; or under which circumstances people are able to override hidden urges by force of will. Millions have quit smoking, for instance, and uncounted numbers have resisted darker urges to misbehave that they don’t even fully understand.

Yet the new research on priming makes it clear that we are not alone in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own, but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.

I think these two threads may be converging, as both parties attempt to bypass that pesky cerebral cortex. I’m probably just paranoid, but I fear that the Republicans may have already figured out some basic “priming” techniques to make themselves look tough and resolute instead of craven and corrupt (although it definitely seems to be wearing off…). Perhaps the U.S. is doomed to an endstate where the lizard brain reigns supreme.

But as long as we’re heading in that direction, maybe what the Democrats need to do is sneak some cleaning fluid into all the polling places so that voters get the urge to clean up our government. Or maybe they need to hire this guy:

Now that’s what I call priming!

(h/t to the shadowy and mysterious Codename V. for the Derren Brown clip)

Entry Filed under: Politics,Science

1 Comment

  • 1. virgotex  |  August 1st, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    thanks for the links. Something I needed to read.
    I missed that WaPo story.

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