Study Maps Activity of Swing Voters' Brains What happens in your brain when you think about politics? Researchers are using fMRI brain-imaging techniques to look at how swing voters react when exposed to the current crop of presidential candidates. Can maps of brain activity provide clues to how voters will act in the polling booth?
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Study Maps Activity of Swing Voters' Brains

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Study Maps Activity of Swing Voters' Brains

Study Maps Activity of Swing Voters' Brains

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A bit later, we'll talk about the latest in cell phone technology and also research into producing hydrogen, a very efficient new way. But first, if you're a hardcore political partisan, your face might get a little red if I said the words President Hillary Clinton or President Giuliani. If you're a little less devoted to your politics, maybe you've mastered the polite art of avoiding the political discussions at cocktail parties.

Your inner thoughts about the various presidential candidates might be a little harder to determine in that case. But we live in a world where it is possible to harmlessly scan the inside of your brain and watch it working. Can we apply this technique to political races? Is it possible to use brain imaging techniques to look at what the brain is doing when it thinks about the candidates, and then to judge your opinions of them?

Well, in a piece on last week's New York Times, an op-ed piece, a group of brain scientists and political experts wrote about using functional MRI imaging to observe brain activity in 20 people, while they looked at pictures or speeches from various presidential candidates, and observe the brain's activities while they were watching.

Joining me now to talk about the work is Joshua Freedman. He's a neuropyschiatrist at the UCLA Medical Center, one of the cofounders of FKP Applied Research, that's a market research firm - marketing research firm that is attempting to use brain imaging techniques in marketing. Welcome to the program.

Dr. JOSHUA FREEDMAN (Neuropsychiatry, UCLA Medical Center; Cofounder, FKP Applied Research): Thank you. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Talk about what you did. You took 10 men and women. You put them inside an MRI scanner and then showed them what?

Dr. FREEDMAN: We showed them pictures of the seven leading presidential contenders, still pictures, and we showed a variety of pictures of each candidate to make sure that it wasn't that particular picture they are reacting to, but the candidate themselves.

Then, we showed them video clips from each candidate's Web site that showed the candidate either giving a stump speech or excerpts from their announcement speech. And then we showed them the same set of pictures again to look at the change and the reaction.

FLATOW: And what did you learn from it?

Dr. FREEDMAN: Well, we saw a lot of interesting things for each candidate. And as you suggested in the introduction, this is a bit of an unusual research project in that - in terms of brain imaging because it's an application in a complicated world of politics.

And we had a team of neuroscientists and people with expertise in politics. So we were looking at the responses we got and making our best judgment of what it meant. And there are other possible interpretations, but I think it's useful to hear what this group of people come up with together.

So, starting with Hillary Clinton, we saw a couple of interesting things. First, we had people rate how favorably or unfavorably they thought of her before they went into the scanner. And then, we looked at what happened in their brains as they look at pictures of her. And we found that the people who rated her most highly, there wasn't any particular activity correlated with their response to looking at her.

But the people who rated her lowest had activity in this area called the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC, which is often found to be involved in the situations where people are regulating conflict in their own brain, when they're having more than one response at the same time.

And so we interpreted that as meaning that people who rate Hillary Clinton low had some conflict about doing that. And that there probably are ways that she's appealing to them as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FREEDMAN: Interestingly, when men initially looked at Hillary Clinton, there was relatively little response. Women had a fair amount of activity as when they first looked at her. But after they watched the video of her, men showed activity in areas associated with reward, ventral striatum, liking someone; and medial prefrontal cortex as emotional connection to someone.

And it looks like the men, actually, after they saw her, felt more of the reaction to her. The women had the opposite effect. Their reaction to her seemed to diminish.

To us that suggest that as men see more of Hillary Clinton, they may find themselves liking her more than they do at this point. And I should note, these are all swing voters. This is not Democrat or Republican partisans, but people who are open to voting to someone from either party. And the group on whom most elections turn - whether the swing voters decide to break one way or the other.

FLATOW: And what about the Republican side?

Dr. FREEDMAN: For the Republicans, an interesting finding had to do with Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. Fred Thompson, for whatever reason - perhaps because of his acting background - seemed to do quite well in at least in comparison to Mr. Giuliani, evoking activity in the areas associated with empathy and connection.

And this was present initially and also when they were watching his video and then watching the pictures of him again after they saw the saw the video. So to us, again, our interpretation is that the as or if voters get to see more of Fred Thompson that they may find themselves liking him more.

Rudy Giuliani had almost the opposite pattern with a diminishment of the signs of feeling connected and interested in him, especially among men. So it maybe that Fred Thompson, if he - if voters, swing voters see a lot of both candidates, will be more connected and interested to Mr. Thompson as the campaign goes on.

FLATOW: How old were these subjects who were in the test?

Dr. FREEDMAN: They were arranged. The median age was in the high 30s. And they were - selected anyone who was of voting age basically, could participate up to the age of 65.

FLATOW: Now, in a letter to the editor in the New York Times, 17 scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists were upset with your study, saying they really was not a peer-reviewed study and you jumped at too many conclusions.

Dr. FREEDMAN: Yeah, and we very much respect those researchers. They've all made important contributions to the field. We want to point out that we did almost identical protocol in 2004, and we did then submit it and publish it in a peer-reviewed journal.

So this method is something that has undergone peer review. And we think that it's an important question in the application of science. I mean, I'm a physician and have seen a similar debate go on with the approval and studying of drugs because medications, when they go FDA approval, are virtually always studied one medication at a time.

And then, in the person - in subjects with one disease at a time where you control all the variables and understand what the effect of the medication is. But then, when doctors prescribe them and patients take them, they're very often taken in combination with multiple medications in people with multiple diseases.

So doctors really are extrapolating from a very well-controlled situation to a much more complicated situation in trying to figure out what's relevant.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FREEDMAN: And there has been a big movement in medical research from what is called efficacy studies, which are these very highly controlled studies to effectiveness studies, where you actually try to do the research in this messier but more realistic setting.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FREEDMAN: And so, we've had done that in this case. We know that we don't have as much control over many of the variables. And it's part of the reason that we published this as an opinion piece.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. FREEDMAN: We think it's additional, useful information that other people can interpret in other ways and that getting experts in politics and brain imaging together to see what they come up with as a useful thing to do. And we will be publishing this in peer-reviewed journal at a later date, or at least that is our plan, like we did with the 2004.

FLATOW: Now - as I only got a couple of minutes left, so I want to see where we move from here. As a marketing expert in a marketing company - marketing companies, usually in political arenas, they have focus groups of people. They watch the candidate in focus groups.

Dr. FREEDMAN: Right.

FLATOW: Is this the next step that you see? Instead of just the focus group, you do brain scanning?

Dr. FREEDMAN: In politics?


Dr. FREEDMAN: You know, I don't know. I don't think it's going to happen in the short term. And I think at this point, our interest is more just in trying to understand what goes on in the process of people making political decisions, because we think it's vital for our society. These are all the tools available to understand how people are making decisions. And this is another piece of information that - as there's more attention paid to it, and more attempts to study it, the usefulness of the information will become more clear.

We wanted to get this information out to the public early in the campaign because we think it's akin to understanding nutrition or other things about one's own physiology. The people will develop their own sense of what is right and wrong. And the debate between scientists about what it means is an important part of that because that's how we'll all figure out how relevant this is.

FLATOW: I have about a minute left. I guess the take-home messages here is that the more you get to see the candidate the more chance there is you might change your opinion?

Dr. FREEDMAN: I think that that's part of it. And that what people say is a useful piece of information, but that there is interesting information to be gotten by looking at their brains at the same time and to try to figure out how predictive that is and how they're going to end up voting or whether just helps us explain the patterns of how people make their minds up.

FLATOW: Could you ask the people, when they were done, whether they were influenced in the same way the brain scan might have indicated?

Dr. FREEDMAN: We didn't ask them directly that. We did ask them the same set of questions about favorability that we did before they went in the scanner. So we saw there was a change, and there was minimal change between before and after.

FLATOW: So it could be something - if it's correct, there's something subliminal going on.

Dr. FREEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, my view and I think many people's view is that the brain is working a way just like different parts of our body is working a way in solving problems, and we're not aware of most of those activities directly. They influence us, but they're not - you're not aware that your interior cingulate cortex is firing.

FLATOW: I think we're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Dr. FREEDMAN: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

FLATOW: And Joshua Freedman is a neuropsychiatrist at the UCLA Medical Center, one of the co-founders of FKF Applied Research. That's a marketing research firm that talks of - involved in this brain imaging technique.

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