Back in 2007, the New York Times ran an op-ed by a team of neurologists and political researchers called “This is Your Brain on Politics.” They claimed that brains scans revealed how subjects felt about various presidential candidates: Fred Thompson elicited more empathy than Mitt Romney, emotions about Hilary Clinton were mixed.
A few months later, CNN ran a similar story with the headline “Machine Reads Voters’ Lying Minds.”
Of course, there was no political mind-reading machine.
Roger Dooley is the author of Brainfluence. He explained that in the past, what was termed “neuro-punditry,” or “neuro-politics” was discredited.
“For many years there was this sort of whiff of pseudoscience about the whole thing, people were going out and measuring brain waves, or putting people in fMRI machines,” said Dooley.
Now Neuro-politics is making a comeback, of sorts, with an easier way into people’s thoughts than probing their brains:
Looking at the face.
Dan Hill is the president of the research firm Sensory Logic, and a long time facial coder. “I think of facial coding almost like an emotional radar, as to what’s going on for people,” said Hill. “The face is the only place in the body where the muscles attach right to the skin. So it’s quick, real-time, unfiltered results.”
It’s not that faces can’t lie—it’s just that they don’t lie quite as well as our words do. In that split second before you can fake a smile, a real emotion can get through.
“There are seven core emotions that facial coding can work from…that’s happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and contempt,” said Hill.
Yes, of those seven core emotions the face can transmit, only one is a nice one.
“It’s not because Charles Darwin or myself is a negative person, that we have more negative than positive core emotions, it’s really back to evolution, it’s survival instincts; people are more alert to bad news,” Hill explained.
Facial coding can help political candidates understand the emotions they’re eliciting from voters—as well as the emotions they’re communicating with their own faces.
Hill was hired to analyze both for the PRI party in Mexico’s last election to help their candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, win the presidency.
“In one instance, it was looking at Nieto’s campaign stump speech, how he delivered it, where did he have the most conviction, the most motivation, emotionally, essentially trying to refine his delivery,” Hill said. “But it was also of course for the voters. So we used facial coding to capture how they responded, issue by issue.”
On the night of Peña Nieto’s second presidential debate, Hill read the faces of a hundred voters, and got his data to the campaign as fast as he could.
“It is the only time in my life where I presented to the client at 4 in the morning,” Hill said. “I told him that the PAN party candidate, who was the incumbent party, was going to be flat in the water, they were most concerned with that party. I said they could stop that, instead it was the socialist candidate who was going to surge. I got done with my critique, they said, ‘You’re wrong. In fact Mr. Hill, you’re dead wrong. You’re an American. You don’t even speak Spanish.’”
Peña Nieto still won, but the socialist candidate did surge—another 8 percentage points.
“I wasn’t dead wrong so much as I was dead right,” Hill said.
As for our own colorful race for president—Dan Hill is not doing any political work for the 2016 campaign. I haven’t been able to get a response from any campaigns or PACs about whether they’re using these techniques. In fairness, they’re probably pretty busy; but Roger Dooley has seen a reluctance to discuss neuromarketing—there’s a conventional wisdom that people still associate it with those non-existent mind reading machines.
“I have to believe that every major campaign will be using it at some point. If you look at the amounts of money that are going into the various campaigns in advertising efforts, investing modest amounts in evaluating the messages that you’re putting out really makes a huge amount of sense,” Dooley said.
Dooley says the only thing that worries him about neuropolitics is the possibility that candidates would use the techniques to tailor their positions to what they think voters want; but that’s a problem as old as politics itself