March 4, 2013

Speak to the Brain’s Politics

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 

Once more, over the cliff! Our lawmakers have had to make, or not make, some risky decisions lately. The “sequester,” a poison pill of across-the-board cuts designed to force a spending compromise, has just done what no one believed it would do when it was created in 2011: It’s gone into effect. That is widely expected to result in hundreds of thousands of layoffs, imperil effectiveness across federal programs, and potentially nudge our struggling economy back into recession. It’s a reason to be wary of artificial deadlines, and just the latest example of Democrats and Republicans appearing to be not just different parties, but different species unable to meaningfully communicate with each other. The two parties may share the same language, but they seem to have very different brains. And a recent study appears to actually show that: There are differences in the ways the reds and the blues use their gray matter, especially when making decisions associated with risk.  

A team of British and American researchers in politics and psychology recently published a study (Schreiber et al., 2013) showing that Democrats and Republicans use different parts of their brain when making risky decisions. Measuring activity in several regions of the brain as participants engaged in a gambling game, the research team was able to identify party affiliation as Democrat or Republican with a surprising 82.9 percent accuracy. For litigators, this result might confirm the intuition that we should be communicating differently with liberal and conservative judges and jurors. In this post, I take a look at this study and add some ideas and examples of how these acquired differences in thinking style could influence your trial message depending on whether you are talking to red brains or blue brains. 

Is Your Brain Red or Blue? 

Turns out, instead of checking your party registration or your voting behavior, we can simply check your neurons. Researchers affiliated with the University of Exeter in the U.K. and the University of California, San Diego in the U.S. (Schreiber et al., 2013) conducted this study, building on a line of research showing different cognitive styles separating liberals and conservatives. Using 82 participants, the team had the volunteers perform a specific task while they looked under the hood using fMRI in order to reveal, based on blood flow, the areas of the brain that are being used most. Importantly, participants were engaged in a nonpolitical activity: a simple gambling exercise meant to induce risk taking or risk-avoiding behavior. 

While engaged in this task, Democrats showed greater activity in the left insula, an area in the brain that is believed to be connected to self-awareness, social awareness, and specifically the perception of others’ internal states and drives. Republicans, on the other hand, showed greater activity in the right amygdala, the region associated with our reactions to fear and the fight or flight response.

So when thinking about risk, liberals and conservatives do seem to be using their brains differently in ways that are reliably observed. Looking at which parts of the brain were lighting up during the risk exercise, the researchers were able to predict party affiliation with an 82.9 percent accuracy rate. That is a very good rate, and substantially better than other social cues to party identification. Using the party affiliation of one’s mother and father, for example, one is only able to predict an individual’s political orientation 69.5 percent of the time. As lead author Darren Schreiber notes in EurekAlert: “The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science.”

So, How Do You Persuade…

All of this discussion of neural regions isn’t really useful to active litigators and other persuaders unless it translates into identifiable strategies of influence. Of course, there is a difference between noting differences in brain usage and having a defined template for persuasion (nothing is that simple… especially not the brain during persuasion). And there is also a difference between the gambling game the study participants engaged in and the jurors’ task of deliberating, though I’d argue that deciding a case is a situation where something is similarly at stake, and fact finders are motivated to reduce risk through their decision. Based on that, I think it’s worthwhile to take the idea a step further than the authors did and contemplate the different messages and argument styles that might appeal to Republicans and Democrats deciding a legal case. So, let’s start with the red-brained Republicans. 

…The Red Brain? 

If the study is correct and conservatives make greater use of the fear-processing amygdala when thinking about risk, that buttresses the idea that Republicans are more sensitive to frightening stimuli and more driven by threats to personal security. This dovetails nicely with the “Reptile” perspective (Ball & Keenan, 2009) currently in vogue in the plaintiffs’ bar, based on the strategy of appealing to jurors’ reptilian fear center by portraying the defendant’s conduct as a threat to jurors’ own safety and the safety of others. If this Reptile strategy is really a strategy for persuading Republicans, that would make some sense given that they’re also the group most likely to be suspicious of lawsuits, to side with defendants, to oppose higher damages, and to support tort reform. 

Whether one supports the full Reptile approach or not, the brain study suggests that it still makes sense to speak to fear as a motivator if your most important persuasive targets are likely to be conservative. Here is what one red-brain appeal might sound like in a slip and fall case. 

A Fear Appeal

This case is about a number: 9,400. 9,400 is the number of people who use the outdoor polished granite steps in front of Smithfield Plaza every single day. They’re business women and men, they’re showing up for work or delivering packages, they’re stopping into the food court for a bite. They’re also mothers and fathers, children, spouses, breadwinners – they’re people you see every day, maybe even you or those you love. Another 9,400 on average every day, including rainy days when those polished granite steps become an unexpectedly slick hazard that has injured three dozen of those people so far – that we know of. And what makes these injuries, this known danger, and this broad risk all the more intolerable is that it is so easy to solve, with a simple application of a no-slip gripping tape on each step. 

This part of the appeal is about personalizing a threat. It isn’t just about the plaintiff, who hasn’t even been mentioned yet, but about the safety of all the people close to you, and maybe even the jurors themselves. 

…The Blue Brain?

Moving on to the blue-brained Democrats, the study indicates that they’re more likely to activate brain centers connected to self-awareness and social awareness. To me, this suggests that liberals are more likely to filter through the lens of community values, particularly the notions of universal morality, like care or fairness. In addition, because the brain regions in use are those associated with the attribution of internal states to others, motives and not just consequence are likely to matter more. If that is true, then an audience of Democrats might respond to the following appeal on the same slip and fall case: 

A Motive/Community Value Appeal

This case is about a number: 275. That is how many dollars — material plus labor – it would cost Smithfield Plaza to install simple gripper tape on its steps. This is the rough adhesive, usually black, that we see routinely at the edge of a tread, particularly when the surface is exposed to the outdoors and potentially slippery weather. Just $275 to put the tape down. So that number raises a question: When the cost is less than the executives spend on a team lunch, why wouldn’t they just do it? You’ll hear it from the top, the answer is they don’t do it because they don’t want to maintain it. You see, based on the traffic, the strip gets torn, or it forms bubbles and separates from the tread after a while. You’ll even hear them claim that a loose strip could catch someone’s heel and pose a greater threat. But that isn’t concern…it’s greed. You see, the solution — the same solution applied by everyone who uses that tape — is just to replace it every two years. So, $275 every two years. That’s it. To avoid that expense, the owners of Smithfield Plaza instead choose to put the 9,400 daily users of these steps at risk.

Of course, that appeal also includes an element of threat and danger, but the main emphasis is on motive and the negative societal value of greed that’s associated with that. The theme also resonates with the anti-corporate bias that we know is more likely to be held by those on the left side of the political spectrum. 

In an actual trial, you would want to use both appeals at some point (e.g., This case is about two numbers). You would want to combine appeals because you probably won’t get juries composed of just one political stripe (though you’ll come pretty close in some urban and rural areas), and because the more diverse message is simply the more complete message. Still, it’s important to think about who responds to what parts of the message. If the study is correct, then the first theme (personalized danger) will play a bit better with conservatives, which the second theme (a motive of greed) plays better with liberals.

The bigger lesson is to keep your audience in mind. That is something at which our Government may be currently having a little less than 100 percent success. As the voting public contemplates the sequester, its effects are likely to have them in a blue mood, or maybe seeing red. 


Other Posts on the Brain in Persuasion: 

____________________ Schreiber D, Fonzo G, Simmons AN, Dawes CT, Flagan T, Fowler JH, & Paulus MP (2013). Red brain, blue brain: evaluative processes differ in democrats and republicans. PloS one, 8 (2) PMID: 23418419



Image Credit: _DJ_, Flickr Creative Commons (Colorized by Nick Bouck, Persuasion Strategies)

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