Neuropolitics: Shaping Politics and Marketing

About the book "The Political Brain: The Emergence of Neuropolitics" by Matt Qvortrup, published by CEU Press Perspectives in 2024.

Matt Qvortrup
Matt Qvortrup
We now possess the ability to "read" other people’s minds and can even predict their voting choices. Photo by Fondazione Santa Lucia.

Once, political parties tested their opinions in focus groups, but soon they might take a cue from commercial advertising and use social neuroscience. Some already have. Enter the political brain.

“If you could read my mind, love/What a tale my thoughts could tell/Just like an old-time movie.” Readers might be familiar with the late—and great—Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 chart-topper ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. (It peaked at Number 5).

Lightfoot—who died in May last year—could not have known that now, his ‘love’, could indirectly ‘read his mind’ using so-called fMRI and fNIRS brain scans. Nor could he have known that this technology, fifty-three years later, can be used in political marketing to win elections. Welcome to the weird, perhaps wonderful, but also scary world of neuropolitics.

The Evolution of Neuropolitics

Since the early 2000s, social neuroscience has made strides. This is due to the invention of so-called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (usually abbreviated as fMRI). It is pretty basic, really. Oxygen, transported by blood, contains iron, which, again, is magnetic. By magnetically scanning the brain, we can see which parts get activated, and hence we can infer which parts are associated with certain activities.

Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty, and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear.

This is causing a revolution in the way we think about the political brain. In a pioneering study, Kanai, Feilden, Firth, and Rees found that political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. And yet, the Firth mentioned was none other than the Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth who sponsored the research!

What the researchers found was that voters with a more liberal persuasion activated the so-called anterior cingulate cortex—in the front part of the fissure—or sulcus—that divides the two brain hemispheres. This part of the brain is associated with conflict monitoring. Conversely, people with strong conservative traits activated the amygdala, an evolutionarily older part of the brain which we share with cats, bats, and rats. This part gets activated when we feel rage and fear. To summarize, liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).

Other studies have confirmed these findings but also revealed that liberals tend to activate the so-called Insular Cortex, a part of the brain on the side associated with empathy, whereas traditional conservatives activate the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex—a region on the top-side of the brain associated with caution. It is important to note that no single part of the brain is solely responsible for a specific function. Rather, various parts are interconnected. Social neuroscience is not an electronic version of the much-maligned Victorian phrenology, but rather, ‘localization’ serves as  a useful pedagogical shorthand for understanding brain functions.

These studies suggest that ideological positions can be predicted more accurately using brain scans than by using focus groups and polling.

Neuromarketing in Action

These techniques and insights have been extensively utilized in advertising and marketing. Companies like McDonald’s, Nike, and Dove regularly employ fMRI scans to gauge potential consumer reactions.

According to Eden Harrell’s article in the Harvard Business Review, titled Neuromarketing: What You Need to Know: A Report on the State of the Art, NBC and Time Warner have operated neuromarketing units for years; tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have also recently established such units.

While the use of neural manipulation may seem intrusive, it’s noted that “consumers are already being influenced.”

We now possess the ability to “read” other people’s minds and can even predict their voting choices based on brain scans.

The appeal of neuromarketing lies in its ability to provide an objective assessment of what people genuinely think. Participants in focus groups might lie or be reluctant to admit to embarrassing preferences. For example, researchers at Northwestern University have been able to predict the success of movies with over twenty percent greater accuracy than traditional methods by analyzing how consumers respond to movie trailers.

Challenges and Ethical Considerations

However, fMRI scans are costly, typically around $1000 each, and at least 30 participants are needed to achieve statistically significant results. Additionally, participants must remain perfectly still during the scans, which can be unrealistic. Sociological research has shown that advertising effectiveness also relies on a two-step process involving social interaction, highlighting another limitation of relying solely on neuromarketing.

For effective measurement of social interaction, Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) can be utilized. This method involves subjects wearing a helmet fitted with electrodes, allowing them to move around during scans, thus offering a more realistic scenario. Additionally, the costs associated with fNIRS are relatively low, often in single figures.

Despite its potential, this technique has not yet been commercialized, but it could represent a new frontier in neuroscience.

In summary, we now possess the ability to “read” other people’s minds and can even predict their voting choices based on brain scans. Is this unsettling? Perhaps, but it’s also a reality that, like other technological advances, requires regulation.

Returning to Gordon Lightfoot, who sang about reading his lover’s mind “just like an old-time movie,” a relevant study by Jack Gallant and his team involved volunteers watching movie clips while scanners monitored their brain activity. The data collected enabled a computer to create rough reconstructions of the viewed scenes, including one of the actor Steve Martin in ‘some old-time movie’.

Like it or loathe it, the era of neuropolitics and neuromarketing has arrived.

How to cite this article

Qvortrup, M. (2024, May 12). Neuropolitics: Shaping Politics and Marketing. Politics and Rights Review.
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.11179815
Share This Article
Professor of Political Science at Coventry University. Having originally studied neuroscience, he gained a doctorate in Political Science at Oxford University. His most recent book is The Political Brain: The Emergence of Neuropolitics (CEU Press 2024).