Brain research raises political questions

Robert Sahr

The use of the brain scan as a tool for political manipulation is still in the future—though not all that far.

Techniques developed in social cognitive neuroscience (SCN) are already being used in marketing and business, and the trend suggests that application in political campaigning and public influence efforts will follow, said Robert Sahr, a Center Research Fellow and associate professor of political science at OSU.

“SCN techniques have shown, for example, that brain activity defending against challenges to pre-existing views bypasses the ‘rational’ parts of the brain, so that conscious thinking is not even activated. Such developments raise questions, among other elements, about voter political competence in using political information and making political judgments.”

Sahr’s research project, “Re-thinking Elements of Normative Democratic Theory in an Age of Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Voter Micro-Targeting,” investigates major shifts in the relationship between candidates and voters. Summed up, the project looks at the increased ability of candidates to target voters coupled with developments in neuroscience that help explain, and may someday allow control of, brain activity in political contexts.

Developments in SCN, originated by psychologists and cognitive scientists, have become tools within marketing, political science and other fields. “In relation to politics, SCN methods, primarily the use of brain scans and related techniques, have been used to more fully measure and describe neural and physiological components of political thinking and action.”
For example, the techniques have illuminated the relationships between preconscious and conscious thinking. Because preconscious thinking occurs prior to, and influences, conscious thinking, said Sahr, these developments undercut the use of self-reports in studying political thinking and public opinion.

While the strategic marketing of candidates and policies is not new, it has been greatly enhanced by the new technologies that allow “micro-targeting.

“These techniques utilize rapidly burgeoning sets of consumer data to identify and then target individuals, not only as parts of groups—religious, ethnic and so on—but also in terms of very narrowly defined preferences, purchasing patterns, and interests. The increasing ability to do this raises questions of freedom and autonomy on the part of voters.”

It also raises ethical questions for political leaders, who “engage in ‘strategic’ thinking and communication rather than ‘truth-seeking’ thinking and communication.”

Sahr is looking at the implications of these developments for three inter-related elements of democratic theory, one involving voters, one involving leaders, and the third involving the interaction between the two.

“Given the increasing ability of leaders to target and influence, possibly even ‘control’ public views, what are appropriate actions and limits on the part of leaders to use those technologies?

“What questions of democratic competence are heightened by emerging technologies and what are some implications for democratic theory? And, to return to a traditional question, to what degree should members of the public in a representative political system be expected to make decisions involving policy as against simply selecting leaders to whom they delegate those decisions? And what information ‘must’ the public have for those decisions?

“What institutional and other changes might best enhance appropriate response to the first two sets of questions?”

Sahr’s object is to “develop a set of reasoned prescriptions that reflect careful thinking about the challenges raised by new developments and about the normative approaches that appear best to respond to those challenges.”