Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Science of Persuasion

Political speech can frame elections, but how does it work in the brain?On the sweltering summer afternoon of August 28, 1963, under the watchful eye of the Great Emancipator himself, Martin Luther King, Jr., ascended the stage near the Lincoln Memorial and faced a crowd of two-hundred thousand.

It was his “I Have a Dream” speech, and for sixteen minutes King held the crowd transfixed. He spoke simple words and short phrases, delivered with a trance-inducing, soft-then-loud cadence. The speech was emotionally riveting, and when King was through, an entire people’s struggle and a vast nation’s hypocrisy were exposed. Civil inequality had nowhere to hide.

Henry Marsh, the first African-American mayor of Richmond and now a State Senator from Virginia, was in Washington that day. “When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke,” said Marsh, seventy-four, “it was a feeling of vindication. It was emotional because of the many sacrifices that led to Dr. King’s march.”

Almost exactly forty-five years later, Marsh felt those feelings again — vindication, hope, optimism. This time he was at Mile High Stadium in Denver, and Barack Obama was speaking.“They both grasped the moment,” said Marsh of Obama and King.

Great speech can move nations and change history. It can ignite revolution, spread peace and reconciliation, and even inspire hatred and war. It also wins elections.But why are some politician’s messages so powerful, so persuasive? And why do some messages excite, invigorate, and endure, while others are forgotten as soon as the microphone drops?

It turns out that there’s science behind persuasion, and recently, with modern techniques, scientists have actually seen what is happening in the brain. What they’ve found is surprising, even counter-intuitive. Effective persuasion — the ability to convince — has little to do with facts. What changes minds in politics is far more basic.

Luke Conway, a professor of psychology at the University of Montana, studies complexity in political speech. Conway found that politicians’ ideas get simple when they are running for election. His conclusions come from studies including an examination of the four State of the Union addresses of forty-one presidents in their first terms. Conway found a pattern. American presidents’ ideas are most complex in their first State of the Union address. In other words, their ideas are nuanced and often open to others’ points of view. Subsequent addresses, however, are less complex. The last address — the one prior to potential reelection — has the simplest ideas. Conway’s studies, though still underway, suggest a relationship between simplicity and persuasion. “This could be why candidates typically get simpler as elections approach,” said Conway. “Because simplicity sells.” Likewise, Conway’s research suggests that complexity and ambiguity don’t inspire. “No one marches to rallying cries that say ‘I may be right, I may be wrong, let’s dialogue,’” said Conway.

It turns out that simplicity is a common trait in the messages of other successful historical leaders. Peter Suedfeld is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and has studied revolutionary leaders in China, Great Britain, Cuba, Russia, and the United States. Suedfeld’s research shows that successful revolutionaries are often those with the simplest message. “Those that were straightforward and put things in simple language were successful,” he said. Suedfeld is careful not to imply that simplicity leads to political success — his data doesn’t show that directly. But, his research does suggest that simplicity usually does precede success.But it’s not all about brevity. Successful persuasion is also dependent on framing, says George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Lakoff, facts by themselves have little ability to persuade. Rather, it’s the way politicians frame facts that leads to persuasion.

To explain framing, Lakoff discusses the government’s recent $700 billion deal with Wall Street. Some politicians framed the deal as a “rescue,” others, a “bailout.” But there’s a big difference in the two terms. A “rescue” is positive, implying heroics, bravery, and benevolence. A “bailout,” on the other hand, is negative; it feels like a reward to those who screwed up.Done right, framing injects values into issues. The two examples above generate the conflicting values of benevolence and self-sufficiency. Do we value rescuing fellow Americans in financial need? Or do we value the free market and leave failing businesses to fail?

Both candidates in the 2008 presidential race used framing. McCain used his foreign policy experience to frame himself as a protector of America. Obama, like Sarah Palin, used his “outsider” image to frame himself as the candidate for “change.”Framing is not a bad thing — at least not usually. Voters should focus on values, said Lakoff in a blog. “Since they don’t know what the situation will be in a couple of years, it is rational to ask if a candidate shares your values, if he’s saying what he believes, if he connects with you, if you trust him, and if you identify with him.”

But, though framing and simplicity are important, they are really a means towards the most powerful tool of political persuasion: emotion.Drew Westen, a professor of political psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, is the author of The Political Brain, which examines the role of emotion in American politics. Westen’s message is simple. “If you want to win hearts and minds, start with the heart.”

Westen and his colleagues conducted studies of the brain to examine how partisanship influences reasoning. To do this, Westen gathered a group of devoted Democrats and a group of devoted Republicans prior to the 2004 presidential election. He showed each group contradictory statements made by John Kerry and contradictory statements made by George W. Bush. Then, subjects rated the degree to which they saw a contradiction.

It’s important to note that the contradictions that Westen chose were glaring. Anyone not under the spell of partisanship could easily see them. The partisans, however, were blinded. For the most part, Democrats only saw the contradictions of Republicans and Republicans only saw the contradictions of Democrats. Westen conducted similar studies about partisans’ opinions on the impeachment of President Clinton and the 2000 election controversy.

From his studies, Westen found a few things. First, partisans don’t listen to facts, and their opinions are difficult to change even with hard evidence. Second, political opinions are generally not based on fact at all, they are based on emotions. In The Political Brain Westen writes: “The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to ‘reason’ to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints as they do it.”By “trace,” Westen means using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what’s happening in the brain. The researchers found that subjects confronted with negative information about their party or candidate initially feel the unpleasant emotion of distress. It doesn’t last long. Very quickly, the brain uses faulty reasoning and false beliefs to counteract the negative feeling by reaching a false conclusion. The brain then produces positive emotion — a reward for having reached an illogical decision.

The bottom line, according to Westen is that the “the political brain is an emotional brain.”

Westen and his colleagues are not the only ones to study the relationship between emotion and persuasion. Russell Granger is the president and chief executive of ProEd Corporation, a Maryland-based productivity-improvement firm that offers lessons in persuasion. He also has a degree in psychology from Lafayette College and authored The 7 Triggers to Yes, in which he discusses persuasion methods.

According to Granger, the study of persuasion started with the ancient Greeks. “They realized it was needed in that crazy new form of government called democracy,” said Granger. “You couldn’t get anything done without having the power to convince others.”

Granger knows his history. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric, a collection of three books on persuasion. Aristotle knew that emotion and the appeal of the speaker were part of persuasion. But, according to Granger, Aristotle thought the best path to persuasion was though logic and reason, which he called logos.

Aristotle didn’t have the convenience of twenty-first century science. For nearly two thousand five hundred years his theory went unchallenged.

Then came neuroimaging.“Now we can see live, in real-time, blood, neurons, and oxygen flow in the brain,” said Granger. “Aristotle had it backwards. Emotional triggers give us persuasion.”

According to Granger, it all involves the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass in the brain’s limbic system that’s responsible for emotion. It’s here that sensory input goes first for requests for decisions or actions. If we are emotionally connected to a topic, a decision might be made immediately. The process is called cognitive heuristics, or a cognitive shortcut. You might call it a gut reaction. Regardless, it’s a process where emotions — not facts — are used to make quick and painless decisions.

Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, also studies cognitive heuristics. According to Cialdini, the phenomenon helps humans with daily functioning by letting us make decisions with our emotions when we don’t have all the facts. “It allows us to make good choices without having to get smart,” said Cialdini.

Decisions, however, are not always made in the amygdala. If we don’t have an emotional gut reaction, the information passes to the prefrontal cortex for logical evaluation. According to Granger, using logic to make decisions is literally painful, producing the same brainwaves as are produced when we immerse our hands in cold water or solve math problems. It’s so strenuous, said Granger, that the brain uses 300 percent more calories than when making decisions in the amygdala.

Here’s the point: Whether they know if or not, politicians should appeal to the emotions of voters. Once they do so, voters will form emotional connections with candidates, and voters’ decisions will be made in the amygdala, not the churning prefrontal cortex. Such connections are so strong they can last a lifetime.That brings us back to the 2008 U.S. presidential election and how candidates courted voters.

From Westen’s studies, we know that partisans already have emotional ties to their party and their candidate. For these voters, it’s too late to change: Republicans can’t convince Democrats, nor will Democrats convince Republicans. For one thing, this means that candidates should never fear offending those with whom they will never agree. Candidates should concern themselves, however, with making emotional connections with undecided voters. That means avoiding complexity and nuance, using facts and statistics sparingly, and, above all, showing humanity.

Republicans have historically excelled at emotion. That’s part of the reason, says Lakoff, that both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were elected. More than their opponents, Reagan and Bush were emotional, charismatic, and likable. They led with values. McCain followed the same path, evoking emotion by framing himself as a war hero, Washington maverick, and protector of America.

Despite all the science, however, Democrats have historically struggled with emotion, running campaigns instead that are based on policies, issues, statistics and facts. According to Lakoff, that’s largely the reason Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lost to Reagan, and why Bush beat Al Gore and Kerry.

As Westen explained, “When Democrats make an appeal to a small strip of cortex in the front of our brain, they are ceding the emotional circuits.” Obama, however, has been different. He has authenticity, sincerity, and can connect and communicate with voters. There’s no better example than Obama’s nomination speech, the one that gave Senator Marsh the same emotion he felt when he heard Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s also, by Lakoff’s analysis, how Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 nomination race.But, according to Westen, Obama focused on issues after that speech. Westen saw it in the first presidential debate. “You could have grafted Dukakis’ face over Obama’s,” he said. “Only two times in 90 minutes did he refer to real people.”Lakoff agrees. “Obama needs to be Obama again, the inspiring figure who gives us hope, not the dull policy wonk.”

If Obama does that, it will seem the Democrats have finally learned what Republicans have known for decades. It’s a lesson that Westen summarizes best: “Sometimes leadership isn’t about moving to the left or moving to the right, it’s about moving the electorate.”

Jonathan Hemmerdinger is a journalist and reporter from Arlington, Va.

Arlington Provides Refuge for Cambodian Culture

Arlington Provides Refuge for Cambodian Culture:

For Cambodian-Americans in the Washington, D.C., area, keeping traditional culture alive is a fight against long odds. The battle's fought, however, week after week at the Arlington Mill Community Center, where Cambodian-born parents bring their American-born children for lessons in their ancient heritage.The children come midday Sunday, shuffling into the center in richly colored, sequin-studded Av Noay, a traditional Cambodian dress. They're here to take classical Cambodian dance and music lessons and to understand their roots.Jonathan Dos, a fifth-grader at Carlin Springs Elementary, patiently holds two mallets above the dark hardwood bars of a curved wooden instrument known as a roneat ek. It's like a xylophone but has a rich eastern tone that fills the room as Jonathan plays. It's a simple tune, like a Cambodian version of “Chopsticks.”The instructor, Ngek Chum, watches his pupils while bowing a violin-like instrument called a tro.There's not a musical sheet in the room. “I use my ear,” Chum said.Most of the adults here arrived in the United States between the late 1970s and early 1980s - during or after the dark, genocidal era of Pol Pot's regime. In an effort to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge directly or indirectly killed nearly 1.7 million Cambodians, one-fifth of Cambodia's population, between 1975 and 1979.Upon arriving in the United States, the refugees established “Khmer” communities throughout the country. Some 4,000 Cambodians live in the Washington, D.C., area.In a larger room across the hall from Chum's music lesson is Devi Yim, the Dance Master. Yim stands on tiptoe at the head of the class, her outstretched arms moving gracefully in large circles to music played from a stereo.Facing Yim for this demonstration of the Coconut Dance are 30 girls, some no more than five years old.Like the others, Yim has seen hardship.“They gave us three days to leave,” Yim said, referring to the Khmer Rouge order to evacuate Phnom Penh in 1975. Yim and thousands fled to the countryside on foot and at gunpoint.Yim, 5 years old at the time, was separated from her family and forced to tend rice fields in the countryside. Her brother was killed.
In the early 1980s, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Yim completed her education and graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She first performed dance in the United States in 1990 on the invitation of the U.S government.“My country was still at war,” she said. “I decided to stay here.”Now she teaches the children what she learned in her homeland. “I want to keep my culture alive. That's why I do it every weekend.”Sara Say agrees. A former second lieutenant in the Cambodian Special Forces, Say has been performing in America since arriving in the early 1980s.Afraid their culture would be lost in the relocation, Say and 30 other refugees brought their dance heritage with them.Say, now a writer, drummer, and singer, lives and performs at local venues.“We must show them that we are from somewhere else in the world,” Say said referring to the children. “They have to learn what is their background.”It's a refrain heard again and again among the parents: It's important that the children know their heritage.Kathy Rafferty sits in a plastic chair in the community center while her adopted daughter, Grace, practices dance moves. Grace was born in Cambodia and brought to the United States by Rafferty at six months of age.Rafferty's not Cambodian, but she understands the importance of culture and identity.The dance lessons teach culture and help with identity, Rafferty noted. Her daughter “wailed at first,” she said, “but when the kids get older they really start to appreciate the lessons.”Another mother, Nalen Smith, watches Meghan, her 5-year-old daughter, perform. “My kids don't know the culture yet,” said Smith, who spent five years at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai border and lost her sister to a border-guard's bullet.“I bring Meghan to dance because I want to keep the culture alive,” she said. “It's not easy.”The littlest ones, like Meghan, are too young to understand. But they eventually learn. “After a while they realize that they have their own origins,” said Say.Victoria Yap, a Chinese-Cambodian-American, passes out four-foot peacock feathers to twenty children in the break room. They're about to practice the “Peacock Dance.”“They become the peacock,” Yap said, explaining the meaning of the ancient dance.Dance and music lessons, however, require lots of free time. And in America, free time comes at a premium.“We try to maintain our identity. But, we're busy,” said Poly Sam, 42, a Cambodian immigrant and survivor of the Khmer Rouge. Sam now is a broadcaster at Radio Free Asia in Washington.Circumstances don't always allow for culture to come first, he said.But though Sam embraces his heritage, he is also grateful for the opportunities America has offered him and his three children.“Being American is a good thing,” he said. “My kids will be successful.”