Saturday, 11 June 2011
Review of 'The Political Brain' by Drew Westen
I was given this book as a gift recently and upon reading the first few pages I was hooked.
The author, Professor Drew Westen, is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University. His book should serve as a wake-up call to all those involved in politics who think they know how elections are won and lost.
The truth is somewhat depressing in many ways, which in no way diminishes its importance.
“The political brain is an emotional brain,” he tells us. “It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures and policies to make a reasoned decision.”
Political campaigns are won and lost according to the degree to which they affect the electorate on an emotional level.
Actual policies, it turns out, are well down the list of importance.
The book is replete with examples from US election campaigns spanning the past few decades.
As well as illustrating the psychological principles being discussed, these also provide a fascinating overview of American politics during this period.
This book answers questions that will be familiar to anyone who has run serious election campaigns.
Should smears be countered? (Answer: Yes, always).
Should a negative campaign against the other candidate(s) be pursued (yes again, but this must be done right.)
Should difficult issues on which the candidate is weak be avoided? (No, never.)
The list goes on, and much evidence is provided to support the author’s conclusions.
Whether we like to admit it or not, what we regard as the rational and enlightened part of the human brain is a relatively new addition to our neural circuitry. Our emotional brain, which evolution by natural selection has honed over millions of years, and which has, on the whole, served us well throughout that period, is the part that continues to dominate our thought processes in so much that we do.
It turns out that even conscious attempts to let reason and rationality guide us are often just ‘reasoning’ applied retrospectively to justify thoughts and actions that our emotional brain had long since decided upon.
Whilst we as humans may struggle to rise above such primal constraints, it is futile to wish away the facts of our inherited genetic makeup. And to do so when you are trying to win an election is likely to be politically fatal, as this book so amply demonstrates.
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the psychology behind electoral politics. Anyone standing as a candidate in an election should read it, as should anyone who is involved in any sort of political campaigning.
This book will cause you to look at your political campaigns in a new light, and inspire you to use what you have learned to ensure that the next campaign you fight has the maximum possible impact on the emotional brains of your electorate. For it is there, and only there, that elections are won or lost.
Buy it here: