March 1, 2013

499 words 3 mins read

Don’t Miss The Brain Study That Tells You How to Influence Democrats

One of the most powerful tools of influence is fear.

Decades of research shows that fear of loss is about three times as motivating as hope for gain. (This changes under certain situations, like conditions of certain loss, but that’s for another time.)

So political message writers often use negative messages to influence voters to take a chance on a cause or a candidate.

This tactic works well with Republican voters, and less well with Democrats. New neuroscience research tells us why—and what you can do about it.

Republicans and Democrats Assess Risk With Different Parts of Their Brains

When assessing risk, Republican voters use their amygdala, while Democrats use their left insula.


The amygdala are the brain’s primary danger triggers. They kick off the flight-fight-freeze response.

The left insula’s primary function involves consciousness of self and others. It processes social information.

This is critical to understand if you’re asking people to take a risk.

This Study Is a Remarkable Predictor of Party Affiliation

The study by Dr. Darren Schreiber of University of Exeter with colleagues from University of San Diego shows that fMRI imaging during risk tasks predicts party affiliation with 82.9% accuracy.

That’s stunning. In fact, few other methods of predicting political preference even come close.

Read more about the study on Science Daily, and you can see the whole paper on PLOS One.

How To Influence Republican Brains

Say you want people to stop freaking out over the sequester. If want to influence Republicans, talk about the dangers of freaking out. For example, if the House Republicans freak out about the political consequences of automatic spending cuts, they’re likely to accept a really bad demand from the White House.

In other words, double down on their highly activated amygdala by reminding them (truthfully) that freaking out will only make things worse. There’s more to lose in compromise (surrender) than in standing firm.

How To Influence Democrat Brains

The White House has done a fabulous job activating the left insula in Democrats by talking about how sequestration will hurt them personally and people they care about.

To get Democrats to stop freaking out about the risk of the sequester, remind them that the more money the government takes, the less money people have to spend on important things like the environment, caring for the poor, and taking care of their families. Remind them that, someday, Congress and the White House will be in conservatives’ hands, along with all the spending power. Remember Bush?

You Are Not Your Voter

This is just more evidence that you are not the voter you’re trying to influence. And it’s only one aspect of brain science that needs to be considered when developing a marketing strategy.

What’s clear, though, is that messaging that mobilizes people who think like you might turn off people who don’t.  But carefully designing your campaign with multiple messages that trigger different parts of the brain will increase the number of people who at least consider your side.